June 15, 2020
By Jose Zarate
“Language is one of the main instruments for transmitting culture from one generation to another and for communicating meaning and making sense of the collective experience.”
“Aboriginal languages suffered a severe blow during the era when every child was forced by school policy to speak English or French.”Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996).
“We believe it is time for Canada to recognize that Canada’s linguistic heritage runs deeper than the English and French Languages. It is, in fact, the oral histories, the stories of creation that explain how First Peoples came to be on this land, millennia before the French or English, and the songs and dances that speak to our connection with the land that give this fabric the unique texture and vibrancy that make it unlike any other fabric in the world. These national treasures must be protected for future generations.”The Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures (2005).
The Kahnawake Experience
On December 19, 2016 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages based on a resolution from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. As 2019 came to a close, the General Assembly declared an International Decade of Indigenous Languages to begin in 2022 “to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize, and promote Indigenous language” and to “take urgent steps at the national and international levels.”
PWRDF launched its Canadian Indigenous Communities Program in 1997 after a series of visits and consultations, and identified the restoration of language and culture as priorities. These same priorities were also noted by the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action report.
PWRDF partner Kanien’kehaka Onkwawén:na Raotitiohkwa Language and Cultural Centre (KORLCC) in the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake, Quebec works to preserve and strengthen the Kanien’kéha language and increase community access to culturally relevant programs and cultural workshops that promote, reinforce and increase traditions.
In 1977, a group of committed Kahnawakero:non (Mohawk citizens) met to discuss their interest and need to preserve and maintain Kahnawake’s unique language and cultural heritage for generations to come and in 1978, KORLCC was established and is the recognized cultural and language institution of the Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) people of Kahnawake. By the late 1990s, founding members realized that subsequent generations had grown up unable to speak the Mohawk language. The Kahnawake Language Law enacted by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake on December 1999 called for the revival and restoration of Kanien’kéha as the primary language of communication, education, ceremony, government and business within Kahnawake. The law also states Kahnawake’s public institutions and businesses have a moral and ethical obligation to protect, promote, and encourage the use of the language.
Over the past 20 years, the community has seen many language initiatives. One of the most impactful has been the Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats Program, a two-year adult immersion program run by KORLCC. Dozens of people have graduated from KORLCC’s program since it started in 2002 and are now educators or have launched other language initiatives in the community.
As part of its 2019-2020 report to PWRDF, KORLCC included four stories of change from their graduates highlighting the contribution the language training has made in their lives, and the opportunities that lie ahead: