Nova Scotia-based Mi’kmaw language training program shows early promise – and opportunity to expand

Written by Oscar Baker

Oscar is an award-winning multimedia reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation and St. Augustine, Fla. Winner of the David Adams Richards award for non-fiction writing for The Violent Ones. Follow him on Twitter @oggycane4lyfe

August 22, 2018

Mi’kmaw language advocacy group Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey is paying people to learn their traditional language. 

The Nova Scotia-based organization, which represents 12 Mi’kmaq communities, wants 15 new apprentices to partner with a mentor for this year’s cycle. People have until midnight August 24 to apply.

“We’re in a critical time in our language and its programs like this that can help reverse those effects of language loss,” said Blaire Gould, Mi’kmaw language literacy consultant. 

The program, now in its third year, is a one-on-one language learning program that allows apprentices to choose their mentor. The pair then work together over 400 hours to increase the apprentice’s language and are paid about $10 an hour. The mentor is someone who is fluent in Mi’kmaw, and the apprentice must be 18 years of age or older from a Mi’kmaw community in Nova Scotia. Gould said the apprentice is given an oral exam at the start, a proficiency exam at the midpoint and an exit oral exam.  

“It’s proven to be very successful over all,” said Gould. 

The program is based on linguistic researcher Leanne Hinton‘s work. Hinton, a professor emerita at University of California Berkley specializes in American Indian languages, sociolinguistics, and language revitalization and where similar mentorship programs are having an effect on revitalizing Indigenous languages. Hinton travelled to Nova Scotia to work with both Gaelic language advocates and with Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, the latter in the design and launch of its mentor apprenticeship program. Although Gould admits fluency isn’t achieved in 400 hours, she hopes the program sparks a commitment to the language.  

“We just want to see people invested in long term language reclamation and this is just a little incentive to get things started,” said Gould. 

The program is funded by the Canadian Heritages Aboriginal languages initiative and other funding programs by Mi’kmaw Kina’manewey. Gould said the real gift is the bonds formed by the mentors and apprentices. “These are community members, and these are parents, that are invested in our communities and invested in continued learning.” 

She explained the model is based on the apprentices’ own goals and their success is based on their commitment. Something Ashley Julian wishes she realized before taking last year’s program. 

“If I had put a little more thought into what this mentorship was and what I was getting into I would have been more prepared,” said the 32-year-old educator.  

Julian is from Sipeken’kaik First Nation and was working in New Brunswick as a teacher during the program. She sought out Mary Ginnish from Natoaganeg First Nation and began the mentor apprentice program.  

The problem Julian found was her rapport with her mentor wasn’t strong enough. A language nest is a supportive place where the desired language is primarily spoken and comes highly recommended. Julian’s nest was with her grandparents in Nova Scotia. 

“One of the biggest things that I noticed was that when you go into this (mentorship) program your language nest has to be almost of kinship,” said Julian. 

She said at work she was surrounded by English speakers. Julian feels total immersion is key to learning a language and wished she felt comfortable enough just to go to her mentor’s house. She’d go to Sunday dinner with language speakers in Elsipogtog but still missed her language nest. 

When she got back her grandparents spoke to her in English. They were caring and hated seeing her struggle.   

She said to her grandparents, “Look you can’t speak to me in English anymore, you have to go and struggle. And we have to go through these frustrations together, because of the disconnect in our communication.” 

Julian said the apprentices must be committed to speaking and immersing themselves in Mi’kmaw and to be okay with struggling and learning. She said for her it’s a commitment to the seven generations that come after. Julian said Mi’kmaw is a part of her DNA and her connection to her ancestors, to Mother Earth and the spirit world.  

She said people have to remember English is a foreign language to Indigenous people.  

“Your language is in your mind, it comes from your mouth, it comes through your eyes. It’s how you see, it’s the things your sense, it’s everything. It’s with you,” said Julian. 

Although the program is currently limited to Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, Gould will support anyone interested in starting a similar program in New Brunswick or other provinces.

Julian would like to see a follow up program she feels like she learned so much the first time, she’d come in with a better understanding. Julian said she’s also helped Natoaganeg First Nation to put together a proposal for a similar program. 

And in the meantime, Julian is working toward fluency.  

“I would trade everything in for my language to be fluent,” she said.  















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