A new bill on Indigenous language education is sparking concern for St. Thomas University professor emeritus Andrea Bear-Nicholas.
Bear-Nicholas, who was the chair of the Native Studies department at St. Thomas University for 20 years, says the new bill undermines the critical need for Wolastoqey immersion classes for Indigenous students.
“I’m concerned, because it will require more speakers to be in more schools and to be teaching more students,” Bear-Nicholas said.
“The plan to require [Indigenous] language in all public schools may actually draw away the resources we need, financial and human, into doing the immersion kind of project that is desperately needed before our language is going to be gone.”
Bear-Nicholas said there are barely enough teachers who can capably teach the language to the members of the Wolastoqey nation itself, and fears this may spread those teachers even thinner if they are to teach in other provincial schools.
The Indigenous languages bill was put forth by Green Party MLA Megan Mitton last month. A week ago, the bill was given unanimous support by an all-party committee of MLAs.
“It’s important that there be some basic exposure to these languages” Green Party MLA Megan Mitton said last week.
“If [the members of the legislative assembly’s] purpose is concern for the language or respect for Indigenous peoples, we far more need to have language opportunities for our own children to be increased,” Bear-Nicholas said.
Green Party leader David Coon said the intent of the bill is to foster an appreciation of Indigenous languages in students.
“The intent is not to put Indigenous teachers into the schools to teach all peoples Indigenous languages in New Brunswick,” Coon said. “It’s simply to foster an awareness among all students in our school system that Indigenous languages actually exist, are spoken, here’s what the language sounds like and maybe just pass on the notion of how to say ‘thank you,’ to say ‘hello,’ and say ‘welcome.'”
Bear-Nicholas said early childhood immersion is the only way to save the language, which has fewer than 100 fluent speakers remaining.
Prefers focus on Indigenous students
“We probably only have, if at all, five years left of being able to mount a reasonable immersion program in the preschools because all of our speakers are over 65 or 70,” Bear-Nicholas said. “It just doesn’t make any sense at this point to be sort of saying ‘OK, here’s a gift for every student in the province to have a right to our language’ when our own children don’t even have enough support to maintain the language.”
“15,20,30,40 years ago this might have been fine, we would have had plenty of speakers,” Bear-Nicholas said. “But even then, it was really critical that we start immersion programs while our kids were still in communities where there were still some speakers.”
“Right now, our speakers are so few, we really are on the verge of extinction.”
Bear-Nicholas said early childhood immersion programs are being used all over the world in places such as Hawaii and New Zealand to revitalize languages that are on the decline.
Coon said the implementation of Indigenous immersion programs is something he would like to see through, but at the moment is unable to put forward such a bill.
“We would have brought in a bill to drive immersion programs for Indigenous students in Indigenous languages if we had the ability to bring in bills that had financial implications,” Coon said. “But as an opposition party, you’re actually not permitted to bring a bill forward that has implications to the budget.”
“That would have been my dream,” Coon said.
Bear-Nicholas said crucial funding has been difficult to secure for an early childhood immersion program to be able to respectfully pay teachers and elders who hold the language.
Province not keeping promise
“This province has agreed to support a program in early childhood immersion five years ago,” Bear-Nicholas said. “They funded our little project then for a year and since then we’ve been begging for more funding to make this possible.”
Bear-Nicholas says if the province wants to give more exposure to First Nations cultures or languages, they should begin with treaty education, teaching the history on how the Peace and Friendship Treaties came to be signed.
“We need to be focusing more on our traditions and our history,” Bear-Nicholas said. “In fact, if we were to be teaching Indigenous history in this province, it would be everybody’s history anyway.”
Coon said it was a bill he put forward a few years ago that made it mandatory that Indigenous history be taught in the provincial school systems. Coon said it was a discussion with Dave Perley of the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre at UNB is what sparked the bill to add languages to that.
Coon said the concern should be on how the Indigenous languages bill is implemented, and not on the bill itself.
Bear-Nicholas said she thinks the bill should be withdrawn or suspended for further discussion.
“I think there should be a consultation in our communities, an open consultation, not a private one, that basically evaluates the effectiveness of that initial bill in the Education Act 7b.”
The bill will be voted on by members of the New Brunswick Legislature this fall.