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Language & Identity

Identity and Language There are many distinct Aboriginal language families in Canada. Algonquian, Athapaskan and Siouan are the most prevalent language families in Alberta. A number of distinct languages fall under these family groupings. A widely spoken language is Cree, of the Algonquian family. Other languages in the Algonquian family include Blackfoot, Ojibway (also known as Ojibwe or Anishinabe), Montagnais-Naskapi and Micmac. Nakoda (also known as Stoney and Assiniboine), of the Siouan family, also has a presence in the prairie province. The Athapaskan languages of Alberta include South Slave, Dene and Chipewyan (also known as Dene Suline).

English is gaining momentum as the primary means of communication among Aboriginal Peoples, and Aboriginal languages across Canada are declining. Some face extinction if action isn’t taken to ensure their survival. In many cases, the youngest people to have full use of their mother tongue are in their forties.

The decline in the use of Aboriginal languages had its start with European contact, which forever changed the traditional way of life for Aboriginal peoples. Just before the turn of the twenty-first century, the Government of Canada instituted a policy to provide a European education to Aboriginal children. Some were taken out of their homes and placed into residential schools, where they were encouraged to embrace a European outlook and belief system. This policy of assimilation was extremely disruptive to both the children and their communities, and many are still haunted by the residential school experience today.

Children were often punished if they reverted to their native tongues. As a result, many children eventually lost their ability to speak their own language and upon returning to their families, found it difficult to communicate. The act of sharing traditional knowledge between parents and their children was lost in many families. For many of the children, English became the language they spoke into adulthood and passed down to their own children.

In recent years, the ever-growing presence of English-language television and popular culture has contributed to the endangerment of traditional languages. This impact is hard to measure, but the effects can be seen echoing through everyday aspects of traditional life. The nuances of language can even have an impact on traditions such as ceremonies, which might take on a slightly different meaning when conducted in English.

There has been a shift in recent years to stop the eradication of some of Alberta’s oldest tongues. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples outlined some of the largest issues facing Aboriginal Peoples for the coming years, including the loss of language and culture, and presented suggestions for long-term solutions.

The first and most important step in reviving a threatened language is to encourage families to speak it at home: "To survive, a language must be passed on from one generation to the next and the most effective way of making this happen is to speak it at home where children will learn it as their mother tongue."1

In addition, schools situated in Aboriginal communities across Alberta are working with the curriculum to implement special programs to meet the unique needs of their residents. In addition to receiving a curriculum-based education, children might also take part in hands-on learning of traditional Aboriginal life skills. In many schools, instruction is given in the community’s Aboriginal language and English is not taught until later years. These actions bring Aboriginal languages one step closer to a secure future.

In recent years, federal and provincial governments, agencies, museums, and universities have been working with Aboriginal communities to help bring endangered languages back to life. Students from Linguistics, Native Studies, and Education at the University of Alberta have helped launch various language-recovery programs in areas such as Cold Lake, where only a handful of people are still able to speak the community’s native tongue, Chipewyan.

With the rapidly changing atmosphere of the twenty-first century, many Aboriginal Peoples are trying to recover their heritage and have been turning to their community Elders for guidance. Elders, in turn, have remained strong in their guiding roles and have been vital in helping to preserve and pass on Aboriginal heritage and culture. One of the key ways to do it is by passing on their language to the younger generations.

In many cases, Elders are the only people left in their communities who are still able to speak the language of their group and as such, are keenly aware that keeping a language alive could make the difference in keeping an entire culture alive. Many Elders also recognize the importance of learning English in order to open communications and build positive relationships with the non-Aboriginal people who, over so many years, have been both their enemies and their friends.

The identity of a culture rests largely on a language among its people, because a shared understanding of certain words, gestures, and written symbols has the power to shape worldviews and to bind a group of individuals as one. Indeed, the future of some of Alberta’s Aboriginal cultures rests on the ability of the people to keep their languages alive.


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