9 Indigenous Languages

In most Residential Schools, the main language was either French or English, and Indigenous languages were suppressed, sometimes violently. Many students came to the institutions with little or no knowledge of English and had a hard time adjusting to the new language. Due to the restrictions placed on their first languages, many students completely lost the ability to speak or understand those languages, which further separated them from their families and communities. In the early years at Shingwauk, restrictions on Ojibwe, the most common Indigenous language spoken by the students, were much more relaxed than in later years and at other schools. Principal Rev. E. F. Wilson spoke Ojibwe, also known as Anishinaabemowin, fluently, and allowed the students to speak it on fairly regular occasions. Later, more restrictions were placed and punishments were carried out if students were caught speaking their language at any time.

Language is an important part of culture and carries a lot of information about various aspects of that culture. According to the Assembly of First Nations in 1994 “language is necessary to define and maintain a world view. For this reason, some First Nation elders will say knowing or learning the native language is basic to any deep understanding of a First Nation way of life” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). Especially for an oral society, language is a foundation of culture (Indigenous Corporate Training, 2019). Without this important connection to a language and its history, people lose their sense of identity and belonging within that culture. Stripping students of their language was a prominent part of colonization and assimilation. Many students did not know any English when they arrived as Residential Schools, and many Survivors talk about the hard time they had adjusting to the new language (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). Children could be severely punished for speaking their language, including having needles stuck in their tongues. Some were even punished for not doing something asked of them in a language they did not yet understand (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). Many students eventually lost the ability to speak and understand their language, which further separated them from their culture by obstructing their ability to communicate with their families and communities when they went home.

In the early years of Shingwauk, students were encouraged to speak only English, and Rev. Wilson set up a system to try and ensure this in a “fun” way. In the Fourth Annual Report of the school in 1878, Rev. Wilson wrote “We also have a plan by which the boys are induced, in a good humoured way, to keep a check on one another about talking Indian. A certain number of buttons, of a particular pattern, are given out to the boys, every Saturday, five each to boys who can scarcely speak English at all, two to each of those who can talk a little, and none to those who can talk well. If any boy hears another talk Indian, he says to him, “Give me your button,” and when Saturday comes round again, each boy produces his buttons and receives nuts in exchange; after which a redistribution is made.” It does not seem as though students were punished for losing buttons, but in 1884, Wilson reported that none of the children at the school spoke their language after 6 months attendance, and that this was achieved through strictness and sometimes punishment.

Names are part of language and culture and often were changed for Christian/European names. Last names sometimes were translated rather than expressed in Anishinaabemowin. Benjamin Shingwauk became Benjamin Pine, and Johnny Wigwaus became Johnny Birchbark. Rev. Wilson stated that if the Indigenous surname was “not euphonious” the Christian name of father might be made into a surname, e.g. John to Johnson, or the name could be translated e.g. Keezhik to Sky. If the students did not already have a Christian first name, Rev. Wilson referred to them in letters to supporters as English translations of their names, such as Little Elk instead of Ahtikoons and Little Spirit Bird instead of Muhnedoopenass.

As a result of their treatment at school in regards to language use, some Survivors raised their children without their Indigenous language, speaking to them only in English, either because they had lost it themselves, or did not want their children to experience the punishments they did for speaking their Indigenous language (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). This contributed to further loss of language as it was perpetuated through the generations. Even after the majority of Residential Schools had closed or were only operating as boarding houses, the Sixties Scoop continued the eradication of languages by removing children from families who may have raised them with their Indigenous languages, and placing them in white families who spoke either English or French (Anderson, 2018).

Many missionaries, including Rev. Wilson, could understand and speak Indigenous languages, but they often used these languages as a tool of colonialism – to bring Christianity and English to the Indigenous people. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015), although missionaries worked “to soften the impact of imperialism, they were also committed to making the greatest changes in the culture and psychology of the colonized.” They used the languages, but only in the process of working to undermine and exterminate them. “Most nineteenth-century missionaries attempted to learn Aboriginal languages and… often translated prayers, hymns, and scripture… This did not necessarily reflect a respect for Aboriginal culture. Rather, knowledge of the language served as a tool for undermining the culture” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). In the early years at Shingwauk, Rev. Wilson allowed students to speak their language (generally Ojibwe, also known as Anishinaabemowin), but usually only in the context of religious activities. When boys prayed and dedicated themselves to Christ, Rev. Wilson originally encouraged them to do so in their own language. Students often sang hymns in both English and Ojibwe, and the print shop at the school printed both an Ojibwe hymn book and an Ojibwe prayer book. The print shop also printed The Peace Pipe, an Ojibwe version of the Algoma Missionary News magazine, which Rev. Wilson wrote and edited. This was intended for parents and community members to give them information about the school as well as news from Christian communities. Rev. Wilson stated in one of his letters that “The Peace Pipe will be just as helpful as schooling in civilizing Indians”, showing that the use of Indigenous language was meant as a way to push forward colonization and assimilation.

Government policies had a strong effect on the use of Indigenous languages in Residential Schools. Principals were often instructed that most of their attention should be focused on fluency in English and the eradication of the use of Indigenous languages. Consequently, school inspectors often viewed the continued use of Indigenous languages as a sign of failure (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). The Indian Affairs Report from 1895 stated that “so long as he keeps his native tongue, so long he will remain a community apart” (Yesno, 1970), showing that the goal was not just fluency in English, but the destruction of Indigenous languages. Some principals set fixed times for their students to speak their languages, as an effort to slowly phase them out. Wilson allowed students at Shingwauk to speak their languages for a few hours on Saturdays during the first few years of the school’s operation. The Government discouraged this, and Hayter Reed, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, stated in 1890 that “at most the native language is only to be used as a vehicle of teaching and should be discontinued as such as soon as practicable” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). Principals often reported on success in suppressing Aboriginal languages, and Wilson often described the progress of the students in learning English based off of their ability and willingness to read the Bible.

As a result of the Residential School Legacy and colonization, most Aboriginal languages in Canada are critically endangered, with some only having a handful of elderly speakers (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). Many communities are working to revitalize their languages, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action include protecting rights to languages, teaching them as credit courses, and Government assistance in revitalization. The right to language is also specifically acknowledged in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In 2002, the Government of Canada promised $160 million for the creation of a centre for Aboriginal languages and culture, as well as a national language strategy (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). However, the Government reverted from this promise in 2006 and instead pledged $5 million per year for the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, which had been established in 1998. The Aboriginal Languages Initiative is a Government run program as opposed to something Aboriginal people have power over (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015).

The Government plans for language initiatives changed again this year with the passage of Bill C-91 the Indigenous Languages Act on June 21, 2019. This act is meant to recognize Indigenous language rights and provides $333.7 million over 5 years and $115.7 million per year after to support reclamation, revitalization, strengthening, and maintenance of Indigenous languages and promotion of their use, as well as to establish the office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages. Provincially, Nunavut is currently the only province with a language protection act, and Inuit is one of the three official languages of the province (along with English and French) (Indigenous corporate Training Inc, 2019). According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015), “If the preservation of Aboriginal languages does not become a priority both for governments and for Aboriginal communities, then what the residential schools failed to accomplish will come about through a process of systematic neglect.” With this new national Bill, and the declaration by UNESCO of 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages, hopefully many of the endangered Indigenous languages will begin to make a comeback. Algoma University is an important site for language revitalization, with Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig having the only Anishinaabemowin B.A. program in the country, and Anishinaabemowin intensive programs are being run on the campus by Survivors of the Shingwauk Residential School.


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Shingwauk Narratives: Sharing Residential School History Copyright © by Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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