For this year’s winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network is broadcasting live events in Cree, Mohawk, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway, Dene, Inuktitut, Michif and Oji-Cree. It’s a remarkable and ambitious initiative that’s had lots of people across the country tuning in. I watched tonight’s gold medal curling match between Canada and Norway in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway) and it was sort of like coming home. My native language skills aren’t the greatest (I understand it way better than I speak it) but it was pretty fun to follow along to a sport that I’ve always been pretty complacent about. But more importantly, hearing Anishinaabemowin spoken on such a grand scale fostered a great sense of pride in me that’s no doubt resonating even more with our elders in communities right across Canada.
There’s an ominous statistic that keeps getting kicked around whenever the topic of Aboriginal languages comes up: of the 55 native languages spoken in Canada, only three – Ojibway, Cree, and Inuktitut – are expected to survive into the 22nd Century. Linguists, anthropologists, and Aboriginal leaders and elders argue about how legit this speculation is. Regardless, a lot of languages are hanging by a thread and it’s really up to us to make sure they survive. Hearing them broadcast during the biggest sporting event in the world will go a long way in keeping that pride and ambition alive.
That pride was scrubbed from a lot of our elders a long time ago. Generations before us were beaten for speaking their language. Canada established residential schools to make sure these languages were killed. Even people who didn’t have to endure that nightmare were shamed to forget the words they grew up speaking – their closest tie to their heritage. In my family, my grandmother and her siblings grew up speaking primarily Anishinaabemowin. My dad and his siblings grew up speaking both that and English. My brothers and I grew up speaking primarily English, with a few traditional words and phrases peppered throughout our conversations. In just a few generations, Anishinaabemowin could have completely disappeared from our family and our community.
But over the last 20 years there’s been a linguistic revival in communities across the country. And this new Olympic initiative should be a rallying cry to make sure the languages don’t die. I can’t imagine what it’s like for our elders to be witnessing these games in their traditional tongues. It’s almost like a total vindication of who they are and why they’ve never forgotten those timeless words at the core of their spirits. They’ll never have to be ashamed of what they say – or who they are – anymore. Now it’s up to us to make sure these words never die.