Languages, Linguistics, and Legislation: Some Reflections on Supporting Revitalization Programs in Canada

Sometimes, I am amazed at the opportunities afforded to me by my life and work as an anthropologist. I have just returned home after an 8 day visit to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where I had the opportunity to teach a course on Language Policy and Planning for Indigenous Language Communities, run through the University of Alberta’s CILLDI program. The goal of CILLDI (the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute) is to provide training in linguistics, language planning, and pedagogy to Indigenous communities in Canada in order to support their language documentation and revitalization efforts. Students are typically members of Indigenous communities, either native speakers or learners of their Indigenous languages, working in various capacities to support these languages (many are language teachers, others are coordinators or staff members of language programs or cultural centres, others are translators, some are students, etc). I could talk for a year – and if you know me in person, you may confirm this is true – not only about the value of a program like this for supporting language work, but also about how being involved with CILLDI is a life-changing experience for students and staff alike, but I want to focus here on what I learned from the opportunity to deliver this particular class in Yellowknife.

In order to better serve the needs of Indigenous language communities, and with the support of various funding agencies, CILLDI has increasingly been offering its courses outside of its standard venue (hosted at the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton for three weeks each July). These new versions mean that the instructors come to the students (or closer to them), at various times throughout the year, instead of always having all the students relocate for several weeks in the middle of the summer, often at considerable inconvenience and expense. The course I taught last week was part of a block of three courses organized and funded by the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, which houses their Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat. Students were from all over the territory and included speakers of Nehiyawewin (Cree), Dene Zhatie (South Slavey), Dene Yati/Sahtu (North Slavey), Gwich’in, Tɫicho, and Inuvialuktun. They were regional language coordinators, language project workers, teachers, translators, and administrative personnel, some were fluent speakers and others were learners, and ranged in age from Elders to a 24-year-old social media guru. It is a truism of any teaching situation that the best part is always the students, but this was a particularly powerful example, as this group brought energy, creativity, and strong knowledge of their languages and communities. They came with different levels of experience and comfort in project planning and thinking big picture about language revitalization, and each one of them took the opportunity to learn something new about how to best do this work.

It’s always incredible to be in a room where there is so much positive energy and a commitment to action in support of language, culture, healing, and Indigenous autonomy, but it was especially so during a week in which the discourse about Indigenous people in this country has been so ugly, so dismissive, and so violent. There is a need to confront all of that awful reality, but there is also a need to be able to take concrete steps toward improving things, whether the rest of the country wants to come along for the ride or not.

It was also an eye-opening experience to have led this course with the direct support of the territorial government, and to spend time with some truly great public servants who are genuinely dedicated to making Indigenous language revitalization work. The NWT has had an official language policy in place since the 1980s, which recognizes 9 Indigenous languages alongside English and French, and which emphasizes the revitalization of these languages as a formal priority of the official languages act. My work in the Brazilian Amazon, where official language policy has also been used as a strategy for revitalization, has made it very clear to me that while such policies can be important symbolic acts, examining how they work and what they mean requires much more careful consideration of how they are being enacted, taken up, and talked about by the local populations (here’s a recent article I wrote about this, apologies for paywall). To say that colonial governments are inevitably fraught with problems in relation to Indigenous peoples and languages is the understatement of the last several centuries, but one thing I saw in Yellowknife was what it can look like if a government actually wants to see Indigenous languages succeed. The primary outcome, for students, of the course is the preparation of a mock (or actual!) grant proposal for a realistic potential project for supporting their language, and in this case, we were able to get a lot of help and guidance about what kinds of projects would have the potential to receive government funding, and how students could reframe their ideas in ways that would strengthen their chances of success.

I admit: “reconciliation” is a Canadian politics buzzword that is eminently critiquable, both in its overall framework (which implies that there was a positive, healthy, mutually sustaining relationship that we will be able to return to, somehow, rather than an entire foundation of violence and theft) and in its incredible overuse (seriously, doesn’t it seem like people throwing a few coins in the cup of a homeless person who appears Indigenous will then write a Facebook status about their contribution to reconciliation?). But with that caveat in mind, I feel like this course was driven by the spirit that the term ‘reconciliation’ should imply. The foundation for this is, in part, the way that Northern Canada operates on a different set of rules than we do here in the South (Ed: South? Shulist: Why yes, it is weird to call Edmonton the South, but all such things are relative). One of those rules is that movement toward Indigenous self-government is much more of a reality, and several groups have either an established agreement or are working towards one. Indigenous languages also have a distinct presence on signage, on the radio, and in other aspects of public life (this could definitely be strengthened, but it is far more significant than in much of the rest of the country). This was my first visit to the North, and there is much that I don’t know, but I learned enough to know that I want to know more, and to think that lots of others should want to know more as well (just because it was -50 one day while I was up there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! It’s actually totally great).

This is an important moment for Indigenous languages in Canada as a whole, as the Trudeau government is currently developing the research around how to create the Indigenous Languages Act they promised after they were elected, and in light of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sadly, I don’t really have a lot of faith that the federal government is going to create something truly meaningful with this act. I think such an act has the potential to be an important symbol, and while I’m definitely not someone who dismisses symbolic change as meaningless, I think that the primary goal of any Indigenous language revitalization legislation at the federal or provincial/territorial levels should be to get the funding in to the hands of Indigenous people who can do the work of making their languages viable again. And in order to do this most effectively, a genuine commitment to Indigenous self-government is needed. Language programs that rely too much on expensive, university-based resources and researchers*, that are incredibly narrow and specific in their requirements, and that create endless mounds of paperwork people must do, are doing everything they can not to actually work on language revitalization. While this may be the topic of another post (because complicated), we also need to seriously engage with the ways in which official bilingualism and the political influence of French influences our ability to focus attention on the needs of Indigenous languages and communities (again apologies for the academic paywall, but this article by Eve Haque and Donna Patrick, if you have access, is a great primer on this). It is true that the federal government has made funding available through programs like the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, but I’ll leave it to the reader to consider whether the process and requirements outlined on that website really make this opportunity accessible to those that need it.

I left Yellowknife feeling really invigorated, but also angry. Invigorated because the students did such excellent work, and because I think there is the real possibility that their projects will get support, and because taking action to support change is so much better than sitting in the narrative of decay and death in which we ‘tsk tsk’ about

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Your friendly neighbourhood linguist blogger outside the best-named business in Yellowknife, featuring multilingual English/Tlicho wordplay

language loss without ever attacking it as a problem. But angry because throughout Canada, the political story remains one in which Indigenous people and communities are portrayed as incompetent and incapable, requiring oversight and paternalistic intervention. This emerges from both the left and the right, with the difference being that the right places the causes in some kind of cultural dysfunction or backwardness, while the left acknowledges the role of colonialism, but still situates the pathology in Indigenous communities, with the solutions coming from benevolent outsiders. This obviously isn’t just about language revitalization, but that’s my entry point in to it. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get out of the damn way enough to enable real change, but I want to believe that it’s possible. At the very least, we can look to the North for some paths to improvement.

*Yes, this includes me. We definitely have a role to play in this, but we don’t belong at the centre.

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A Statement on Structural Racism in Canada

Content Warning: This post includes details about the murder of a young Indigenous man. It is directed at Canadian settlers and other non-Indigenous people who may be unaware or dismissive of the degree of racism and violence present in this country. We recognize that our Indigenous friends are all too aware of these stories, and have no need to repeatedly revisit that trauma. In short, if you are already grieving and pained by this week’s events in Saskatchewan, we are sorry, and you probably don’t need to read this post. 

We are writing this point jointly because we are jointly horrified by the outcome of the trial of Gerald Stanley, a white farmer who shot a 22-year-old Cree man named Colten Boushie in the summer of 2016. Many people, both in Canada and outside of it, remain under the illusion that Canada is “less racist” than our neighbours to the South, or that we are a “nicer” people than many others in the world. This story is one that has revealed, through the actions of the RCMP, the court, the jury, journalists, and the general commenting public, how deeply wrong that narrative is.

From the get-go, this story has been one in which the narrative of what happened hinged on whether Gerald Stanley legitimately had reason to be so fearful, so panicked, and in such distress as a result of the car carrying five Indigenous youths arriving on his property, that he retrieved his gun, and that in the chaos and confusion, one of those young people was shot in the back of the head, dying as a result. He was acquitted based on a defense that the shooting was accidental – a magic gun, some are calling it, based on his description – but as the barrage of post-verdict commentary has revealed, the core of jury sympathy rested on the idea that he was defending his property. This justification was established the day after the murder, when RCMP follow-up to the events at Stanley’s farm described their ongoing work as relating to a ‘theft investigation’, immediately giving credence to the farmer’s version of the story that characterized the young people’s presence on his property as based in their desire to rob him. The witnesses in the car explained they had been seeking help for a flat tire — a story fairly obviously supported by the state of the vehicle.

The perspectives on the story are very much racially rooted. White settler Canadians, even after the verdict, are commenting on social media and on news sites saying that the victim and his friends should not have been drinking, and should not have driven on to the property. The events are ‘tragic’, they say, framing Stanley as a victim of circumstance, a landowner naturally terrified of these rowdy young people being present on his property, whose fear and apparently poor gun safety skills led to a death that could only have been avoided by the victim himself (and, often, his entire culture/race, which is blamed for failing to teach its children not to drink and steal, despite the fact that there was never any evidence that the youth were even trying to steal anything).

We are not writing this with any pretense at neutrality: we believe that Gerald Stanley is guilty of murder. We believe his fear and anxiety about the presence of these young people on his property would be better described as racist anger and hostility, built around a lifetime of stories about how Indigenous people threaten white property. We also believe that the not guilty verdict was produced by the actions of a racist police force, who immediately accepted the Stanley family’s story about ‘theft’, who informed the victim’s family of their loved one’s death callously while searching their home for evidence of that theft, and who later cleared themselves of wrongdoing in those actions – saying, of course, that the officers were perfectly reasonable to prioritize a theft investigation based on the word of a white farmer who had just shot one of the accused thieves in the head. The murder investigation was not only secondary, but apparently a fairly low priority – the same police force failed to treat the vehicle in which the victim died as a proper crime scene, turning it over to a towing company without thorough investigation of important evidence like blood splatter patterns that would corroborate or complicate the testimony of various witnesses.

We believe that while the Canadian news media did report on the racist vitriol that emerged on social media in the wake of the murder, and did talk about the experiences of the victim’s family with the RCMP, they have failed to fully interrogate the racialized nature of this crime, and have allowed aspects of the racist narrative to be perpetuated in the name of some form of ‘neutrality’. We also believe that they have used language that deliberately centres the narrative on the victim, rather than the criminal, rarely using the words “The Gerald Stanley trial”, and instead placing the victim’s name in that role. This focus not only erases the actual criminal, the descriptor makes it appear that the murdered man is the one on trial. The media’s repeated use of the victim’s name also constitutes a violation of the spiritual and cultural values of his family, which is the reason that in this post, we use his name only once.

We believe that the system allowed for the creation of an all-white jury in a situation where the question of guilt hinges entirely on whether or not you believe that this white landowner was truly and reasonably fearful of these youth, and whether or not you find his story of accidental shooting to be credible. The defense was able to remove any visibly Indigenous people from the jury without explanation or justification, as many times as they liked, without question. This is a system that favours the perspective of an unmarked dominant position – it is difficult to imagine a story in which an all-Indigenous jury was allowed to decide the fate of a person like Gerald Stanley, or of any defendant for that matter.

This is a statement we are writing from our perspective as white settler anthropologists, and it is rooted in our analytical understanding – developed primarily by listening to Indigenous voices, as well as to the voices of Black activists and scholars, whose descriptions of how policing as an institution rooted in the protection of white property have helped us to recognize the depth of injustice in a country that proclaims itself (and is internationally seen as) a human rights champion. Our call to settler Canada, and to anthropologists, in response to this specific manifestation of a very deep, very broad injustice, is this:

That we write, post, and talk about the need for an appeal of this verdict, for the possibility of a mistrial, for a re-opening of this case in a way that may allow for a more fair assessment of Stanley’s actions.

That we demand an external investigation of the RCMP’s actions in this case, both in relation to the material outcomes of the trial and in relation to the emotional harms caused to the victim’s family and to all Indigenous Canadians.

That we become much louder, much more aggressive, and much more insistent on the need to counter the racist narratives that Canadians are taught in schools, in the media, and in general conversation, about Indigenous peoples.

That we constantly remind our friends and family that a 22 year old who happens to be drinking does not deserve to be murdered for getting a flat tire, and that life is infinitely more valuable than property.

That we examine the role that anthropology and other forms of scholarship have to play in re-creating the fabric of how we understand this country, and actively work to correct the colonial injustices that our discipline is built on.

That we talk to our white children about this story, and about the fear that it brings to our Indigenous friends, that we do not tell them fairy tales about how the police will always be the good guys in a story, and that we do not allow them to walk through the world unaware of the implications of their whiteness.

That we oppose the narrative of Canadian exceptionalism that says we are different, better, less racist, and more accepting than any other country in the world, that we respond to declarations that this is the best country in the world to live in with disgust and anger rather than pride, and that we demand that the insights presented in report after report about the ongoing systemic violence of colonialism (of which the TRC final report is only the most recent) become more than descriptors on a page.

That we support our Indigenous students, colleagues, and friends. That we do not center discussions around our own anger and tears and instead that we give space in our classrooms, our offices, and our institutions for those who are rightfully grieving but whose voices, emotions, and actions are already being challenged and critiqued.

 

Symbols, Poetics, and Change: A Quick Thought on the Canadian National Anthem

There are certain situations in which changing just one or two words can become matters of immense political significance. An example of such a situation has been brewing in Canada for some time, with the introduction, by a Member of Parliament who has since passed away, of a bill to change the English lyrics of “O Canada” to a more gender neutral form.

The relevant words are in the opening lines of the anthem (emphasis mine):

Oh Canada! Our home and native land
True patriot love in all thy sons command

The changed version replaces this last phrase with “in all of us command“. Earlier this week, this bill was passed by the Canadian Senate, after receiving “overwhelming” support in the House of Commons when it was voted on last year. This means that, barring some truly unusual behaviour by the Governor General, we will be singing the new form in the very near future.

download (1)Observing both the heatedness and the specific nature of the debate about this has been interesting, as in many ways both sides share certain fundamental positions about language use, rather than coming at it from completely opposite perspectives. The heart of the debate, on both sides, is about the value of the national anthem as a profound symbol of identity, and about the performative function that singing it has. Changing the lyrics is intended to signify an inclusive form of Canadianness, and to allow those of us who don’t identify with the word ‘sons’ to more fully feel the nature of our belonging as we sing these familiar words. In other words, the whole reason to change it is because this song and its words matter a lotRefusing to change the lyrics is also centered in the importance of the anthem, with the claim being that history, continuity, and the aesthetic quality of the lyrics are more significant aspects than transparent inclusiveness. Manitoba senator Don Plett, for example, said that “A nation’s national anthem is not meant to be edited and revised periodically, but rather, it is meant to stand the test of time and to allow us to remember where we came from” (quoted here). The whole reason not to change it is because this song and its words matter too much.

There are obviously some differences in beliefs about language that emerge in each of these positions. Many people who favour the ‘sons’ lyric also express a general belief that it’s okay to use words that are semantically masculine to refer to humans in general (ranging from pronouns to words like ‘mankind’, or even to common expressions like ‘Hi guys’, used in gender diverse settings). Those who prefer the change see these terms as enshrining images of men as the default and others (including women, trans, and nonbinary folks) as marked deviations from this norm. There are also positions about what constitutes “grammatically correct” language, as well as opinions about the aesthetics of the change – the move from an archaic second person possessive reference (thy sons) to a first person voicing (of us) is clearly troubling some people, as that same article above also includes an ‘ardent feminist’ who nonetheless opposes the change as ‘grammatically incorrect’. Plett himself, apparently, was willing to allow for some change to national continuity if it would keep that second person (and archaic) structure, suggesting “thou dost in us command” as a ‘less clunky’ alternative. This amendment move, of course, may simply have been an unsuccessful delaying tactic to avoid passing the bill at all, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

To my mind, what this story illustrates is less about debating moves toward gender neutral language and more about the poetics, politics, and performativity of national anthems and other similar texts that carry immense symbolic power. On that, it seems, there is much more agreement than conflict across the political spectrum.