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Lessons in the Language

Mi'kmaq educators start early to overcome legacy of assimilation policies

by J.W. Coady

Eskasoni teacher Gail Stevens reads a story in Mi'kmaq to a grade primary class. Photo courtesy of Ida Denny
Eskasoni teacher Gail Stevens reads a story in Mi'kmaq to a grade primary class. Photo courtesy of Ida Denny
Part one of a series.
 
For over a century, the Canadian government's official policy was to eradicate Indigenous cultures. Through the residential school system, government agents separated First Nations' children from their families, forcing them into schools where they would be punished for speaking their mother tongues. The effects of residential schools linger in innumerable, immeasurable ways, and many remedies are still urgently needed. But in some sense, revitalization of language is among the most pressing of these: once a language is no longer spoken, thousands of years of lessons, wisdom and ties to the land disappear. Although the government has recognized and apologized for the crimes of the residential school era, it has done very little to further the revitalization of indigenous languages. That task has fallen to First Nations educators.
 
In 1997, the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia signed the first self-government agreement in education with the Crown. In doing so, they became the first Indigenous nation since the Indian Act was imposed to reclaim on-reserve jurisdiction over education. But for Mi'kmaq educators Starr Paul, Ida Denny and Sherise Paul-Gould, from the Eskasoni First Nation, this was only the first step in a long struggle to build the foundations of an education based on immersion in the Mi'kmaw language.
 
"The transfer of education jurisdiction gave us the authority to do something like this, but it didn't obviously start from there," Paul-Gould explains. "It started with our previous two directors of education."
 
According to Paul-Gould, the director of education took a chance in allowing the project to begin:  “It was just a pilot program, as we say – it was a little experimental."
 
The pilot program in question is the celebrated Mi'kmaq immersion program (MIP) at Eskasoni School in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, now in its 15th year. It started in 2000, and is based on the early exit model of immersion. Starting in kindergarten, students are totally immersed in Mi'kmaw language until Grade 4, at which point they are transitioned into the English program. Within a period of 10 months, they are expected to achieve a level of fluency in English on par with that of the English language program students. The MIP is part of a growing trend in First Nations language immersion, whose aim is to reverse the decline of language in First Nations communities.
 
The threat of linguistic extinction was foremost in mind for Grade 2 teacher Starr Paul and current immersion principal Ida Denny when they were hired to be the sole teachers of the five-year project.
 
"The main goal was to save the language, to teach students to be able to read and write it," Denny explains. "They had the core Mi'kmaq courses for more than thirty years, and children weren't reading and writing it. They weren't even thinking it anymore, but with this program they could."
 
While the program was beginning, then-director of education Marion Paul made it possible for Denny and two of her colleagues to attend the Native Language Immersion Teacher Training Program at St. Thomas University. They were taught by Dorothy Lazore, a passionate Mohawk educator from Akwesasne, who was instrumental in creating the first aboriginal immersion program in Canada in Kahnawake in 1979. Lazore imparted her love of her Mohawk language, Kanien'kéha, and taught the "total physical response" technique, a method for teaching second languages that reinforces the meaning of words through physical actions.
 
Denny and Paul set about developing the immersion curriculum from scratch. They turned to provincial curricula for their teaching materials, and using the Smith-Francis orthography - a phonetic writing system for Mi'kmaq co-developed by Mi'kmaw linguist Bernard Francis and Douglas Smith and officially recognized by the Mi'kmaq Chiefs of Nova Scotia - they set about the immense task of translating their material.
 
"The beginning days were hectic," Denny relates. "They were hectic, long hours. We had to make our curriculum; we had to find our own stuff; we had to decide what we were going to teach these children. And the first year we didn't have a gym teacher, a music teacher, or any other teacher; it was just us - me and Starr and our teacher aide."
 
As part of the self-government agreement between Ottawa, the provincial government and Mi'kmaw Kina'matnewey, the nation's education authority, the Denny and Paul were limited in what they could provide as educational programs and services. According to the agreement, these had to be "comparable to [those] provided by other educational systems in Canada in order to permit the transfer of those students to and from those systems without academic penalty." They never saw this as an obstacle, however, and strove to include cultural programming in their teaching from the beginning.
 
"We used the same academic outcomes as the regular [provincial] programs," Paul explains. "We just translated the work in our own way, in our own language. However, we added on to what we taught, too. We taught more in the Mi'kmaw worldview: how we are as Mi'kmaw people; our traditions and culture."
 
That included dances, traditional songs, drumming and bringing elders into the classroom.
 
In Mi'kmaw culture, the elders are the vital connection between generations, passing the language and the manifold ways of being and knowing that constitute the culture to the youth.
 
"The language is really who we are as a people because our culture is embedded in our language," Paul says. "And there are morals in there, there's humour in there; it taught us who we are as a people. And there are lessons in the language too. The way we look at it, the elders are the keepers of the knowledge, our elders are our language teachers, and our children can converse with the elders to find out the rich history behind the elders."
 
For over 100 years, the Canadian government instituted various sets of assimilative policies whose express purpose was to eradicate aboriginal language and culture and forcibly assimilate aboriginals into mainstream society. The state-sanctioned, church-run residential schools were the most pernicious and damaging of these efforts. For more than a century, the Canadian government used force to remove over 150,000 aboriginal children from their parents and communities and enrolled them in boarding schools where they were taught European Christian beliefs and forbidden to speak their language or practice their culture. The effect was to break the link between generations and prevent the transmission of knowledge. Though the last residential school closed in 1996, the assimilation approach lives on. Eurocentric education policies fail to recognize the credentials of elders, who are now required to hold Master's degrees to teach. 
 
As the immersion program developed, new teachers were hired. Paul moved up in grades while Denny stayed in kindergarten; many hands became involved in the hard work of producing curriculum. A constant roadblock to enrolment presented itself in the form of parents' fears that immersion would hamper their children's English language skills.
 
Despite early challenges, the program has grown and become a model for immersion in the region. Denny attributes its success to hard work in the face of adversity.
 
"We had a passion to do it and we went for it." 
 
Fear and Learning in Eskasoni
 
Paul-Gould was initially hired at the school to teach the Grade 7 class in the English program. Both she and Paul had children in the first cohort of the immersion class. As a teacher and parent, Paul-Gould was concerned about her son's reading levels. He had completed the immersion program and was in Grade 5 at the time. When Paul-Gould approached her son's teacher, she was surprised to find that his reading was at level Z - the highest level for reading comprehension in the assessments used at the time, and a level of fluency typically associated with the Grade 7 level. 
 
"I taught Grade 7, so I was amazed," says Paul-Gould. "I asked to see a summary of the reading levels for the class. I noticed a pattern: all the former immersion students were reading [English] at a higher level than the students who came from the English program."
 
Two years later, when 4 former immersion students reached her class, Paul-Gould tested their reading levels, this time using a more advanced test, which assessed accuracy and comprehension as well as fluency. Encouraged by the results, she undertook to assess all Grade 7 students so that she could rule out any discrepancies in her findings. Out of all 81 Grade 7 students, 25 were scoring in the top three levels (X, Y and Z), and that number included all 16 former immersion students. Of the 14 students who were reading at level Z, 13 were former immersion students. 
 
"There was fear and there still is fear amongst parents," Paul says. "They are afraid that their children will not be able to read and write in English when they're older." 
 
Paul-Gould and Paul would later co-write a Master's thesis on the benefits of the immersion program at St. Francis Xavier University. It focussed mainly on English language comprehension, because they wanted to confront the worries of parents in their community. Their research found reciprocating relationships between Mi'kmaw identity, fluency in the language, and high levels of student achievement and self-esteem. They identified First Nations' control of education and the consequent transmission of worldview and culturally relevant values as central factors in producing these outcomes.
 
Paul-Gould thinks that it’s too soon to see if the former immersion students will stay within the community or retain the language. The first cohort of the immersion program just graduated from high school, but positive effects for the community can already be seen in the behaviour of the former immersion students. Paul-Gould says they are more likely to engage with the community, take up extracurricular activities, volunteer for community events, and assist the teachers in the classroom environment. 
 
Asked to describe the effects that the Mi'kmaq immersion program has had on her community, Paul-Gould beams with enthusiasm.
 
"Well, the teaching of the language empowered our community," she exclaims. "My gosh, you are able to feel pride in using your language again, and it's not shunned like it was once in the residential schools. We say that the blood of the elders and the youth is connected again."

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