Last week, a Liberal MP from Quebec named Marc Miller made headlines around the world by delivering an address to Canada’s House of Commons entirely in the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language. Miller described his speech, and his year-old journey into learning the language of the territory he represents, as an act intended to honour the people and to support the revitalization of this, and other Indigenous languages. His language teacher, Zoe Hopkins, said that hearing her language in that context was a matter of great pride – it was “Like being inside a Heritage Moment“, which is likely the most Canadian way possible to express said pride.
The speech (included in its entirety on that CBC link) is about a minute long, and ends with Miller receiving an enthusiastic round of applause and congratulations. That short minute, though, is a pretty big deal for Indigenous languages in Canada.
It’s not, to be clear, the first time an MP has addressed parliament in an Indigenous language. In fact, it happened just last month, when Winnipeg Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, also a Liberal, used Cree. The story then, however, was less about the symbolic significance of using the language and more about the pragmatic failure to support Indigenous languages through the provision of translations, as we do for English and French. And yes, the difference between these stories is that Ouellete is Indigenous, and Miller is not.
Into that minute of hesitant Kanien’kéha language use, and into the media’s responses, are packed a whole host of symbolic and practical implications. Indigenous people that I know or follow on social media have had varied reactions to this, and it’s fair to say that, at the very least, it’s complicated. All I want to do here is offer an overview of the many angles at work in this story.
- Miller’s own claim, and the perspective of his teacher and other language advocates I’ve heard, are that hearing Kanien’kéha in the place of decision making for Canada is a powerful statement of respect and outreach. If we are meeting, as we purport to, on a nation-to-nation basis, requiring only one nation to accommodate the use of the other’s language is a manifestation of a deep power imbalance that Miller seeks to mitigate, at least somewhat.
- The most obvious and significant counterpoint to this is that the language is still being used in a colonial house of government. The very existence of this institution and its role in shaping, circumscribing, and yes, limiting, the lives and languages of Indigenous peoples is the reason that Kanien’kéha, and many other languages, face the possibility of disappearing. It smacks, then, of the kind of purely symbolic, performative acts of “decolonization” and “reconciliation” that has characterized Justin Trudeau’s time in office thus far.
- That said, symbols matter. Canada’s parliament is a site of power, and Miller is not wrong in his observation that bringing Indigenous languages into places of power can be important ways of, essentially, given them more power (in the form of stronger motivation to learn them). The devaluation of Indigenous ways of being throughout colonialism has included various ways of devaluing Indigenous languages (and those who speak them) as “inferior” to European ones. Reversing that deeply embedded ideological relationship involves a lot of different types of actions, including symbolic valorization.
- There’s a lot to be said about what it means that a non-Indigenous person is the one using the Kanien’kéha language, but to my mind, the most important is to observe that it does, in fact, reveal the displacement of actual Indigenous people from positions of authority as well as from the levels of privilege that would enable them to actually learn their own languages. Classes are not publicly funded, as noted in more than one of the articles on this, and teachers work precariously. Miller is conscious of this element and has used the press coverage of his speech to emphasize the need to change this. At the same time, the structural barriers don’t stop there – Miller notes the challenge of learning the language, which is structured in fundamentally different ways from the English and French languages that he already knows. Some of the reason he is able to make progress, however, is that he has an academic background that facilitates classroom-based learning. The structural inequalities that produce disparities in education levels, income, health, incarceration rates, and any number of other measures, all combine to make it a lot harder for Indigenous learners to have the time, energy, resources, and skills to work on their language in this way. Programs do exist that address these realities, but they are often overlooked in favour of the more familiar, comfortable (to Euro-American minds), and measurable classroom methods.
- It remains to be seen what form of continuity will or will not emerge from this. A one-minute speech that did not lead directly to conversation, commentary, or debate in the House is not anywhere near the same thing as a robust use of an Indigenous language in a decision-making capacity in this country. The lack of translation is still an issue, as any MP who wants to make a substantive (rather than symbolic) contribution to the discussion would have to provide their own translations, making it a time-consuming process that others would likely find frustrating. The question of whether non-Indigenous people should try to learn Indigenous languages remains at a very surface level, and we are in no way trying to seriously engage with the idea of having to put in the effort that it would require for English speakers to accommodate them, rather than always expecting the opposite (this applies in a broad way to English globally, but I’ll leave that overall idea for another post). It’s a pipe-dream level conversation at this point, though it would really demonstrate a significant strengthening of Indigenous languages.
- Any commentary about this by Kanien’kéha speakers and Kanien’keha:ka people has been clearly focused on how they feel about this act for their own language, and that’s important. While I have tried to contextualize this in terms of Canada and Indigenous language revitalization more generally, it’s worth noting that the implications of non-group members using a particular Indigenous language are subject to the ideologies and context-based meanings associated with ethnolinguistic identity for those people and their own languages. In other words, there isn’t a blanket meaning to be attached to non-Indigenous people using any Indigenous language that would hold true for all languages, all people, or all contexts. The political context of “Canada” means that there may be some shared continuity among peoples within that geographical expanse, but even there, how much and in what form is not obvious.
In the end, I applaud the effort that Miller put in, I think he has a pretty good handle on the symbolic potential and limitations of his actions, and I do think he is doing something better than many politicians. I am frustrated by many things about the media portrayal of the story, including how it exemplifies the way white people are given undue praise & credit for their involvement with Indigenous languages, but I’m glad they’re telling a story about concrete steps needed to support these languages. Yes, it’s complicated, but that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and give up on it all.