Teacher Noreen Sylliboy stands in front of a class of fifth graders and begins with a simple lesson naming the days of the week and the seasons, speaking in a language only a few thousand Nova Scotians know.
She is trying to do her part to revitalize Mi’kmaw, a language that Canada’s Indian residential school system once tried to destroy.
“I love hearing my language. I love speaking it,” Sylliboy said.
Saturday marked National Truth and Reconciliation Day, which honors children forced to attend residential schools in Canada, as well as their families and communities.
In its landmark 2015 report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that residential schools were part of a collective and calculated effort to eradicate indigenous language and culture.
In his classroom at a high school in Truro, N.S., in front of a mix of Mi’kmaw and non-Mi’kmaw students, Syliboy is part of an effort to reverse that.
He learned the language through his elders and family while growing up in the Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton.
She began teaching at Truro Middle School about a decade ago, taking over from Melody Googoo, who had started the Mi’kmaw language course at the school.
Sylliboy said he wants the language to be spoken and taught throughout Nova Scotia. First Nations can help with programming, but she said the provincial government and school districts need to work to bring in more Mi’kmaw language teachers.
“The province can definitely continue to support and fund our culture and language programs,” Sylliboy said. “We need to accelerate the linguistic aspect of our reconciliation.”
Truro High School has a funding partnership with nearby Millbrook First Nation and the Chignecto-Central Regional Education Center to incorporate the course into the school’s curriculum.
“A lot of my learning has to do with understanding the structure of our language,” Sylliboy said. “It’s very different from English and I can’t always apply the way English is spoken to Mi’kmaw.”
Mi’kmaw is largely verb-based, he said, while English is more noun-based. Teaching Mi’kmaw can be “complicated.”
Gordon Pictou of Millbrook First Nation helps incorporate Mi’kmaw culture into the curriculum of 66 schools in the Central Chignecto Regional Education Centre.
“We could definitely use more from me, we could definitely use more Mi’kmaw language teachers, but at least we’re on the path to that, compared to when I was a kid,” Pictou said. “The reality is that one person cannot cover 66 schools.”
According to the 2021 census, there were just over 3,000 people who spoke Mi’kmaw as their first language. In total, 5,650 Nova Scotians knew the language.
Truro Middle School students Tegan Sylliboy Moody, 12, and Mila Martin, 13, are trying to join those who are fluent in the language.
“I feel like I’m a little more connected to my culture every time I speak it,” Tegan said.
“I think it’s good to learn more about our language so we can keep it alive and not stop speaking it and sharing it with everyone,” Mila said.
Pictou said there should be more programs for those interested in teaching.
“Our language encompasses all teachings and encompasses all of our history and is presented as our way of life,” Pictou said. “In the past, education was what broke that.”
Sylliboy said one of the challenges is involving parents, as some grew up without being taught the language. Some of her students only learn the language through her.
“We are losing our elders too quickly and often they are our speakers. Very soon we will not have elders to lean on when we want to talk about the language.”
Last year, the provincial government recognized Mi’kmaw as the original language in Nova Scotia, with efforts aimed at promoting and keeping the language alive.
According to the Department of Education, a new pilot course called Netukulimk and the Environment 11 will be introduced in four secondary schools next term. It will teach Mi’kmaw and traditional values.
This year, for the first time, students will be able to enroll in Mi’kmaw language 11 through the Nova Scotia Virtual School. The Department of Education said students will learn conversational Mi’kmaw.
“I think reconciliation really has a lot to do with that generation and us listening to them and helping them,” Pictou said.
“Now it will be this generation that is on the ground, and it will be non-Indigenous children and Indigenous students together who will figure out what that will look like in the future.”
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