In the Northwest Territories, we are privileged to recognize not only two official languages, but 11. In the South Slave, our schools strive to offer programming in five of those languages: English, French, South Slavey, Chipewyan, and Cree.
In Fort Smith and Hay River, parents can choose for their children to receive their instruction in English or French. Depending on the community/school and parent preference, students also undertake ninety hours of instruction each year in one of Cree, Chipewyan, South Slavey, French or English as their second language.
In an effort to revitalize endangered Aboriginal languages, we have also been making a more concentrated effort to bring these languages into everyday student life. Accordingly, the South Slave Divisional Education Council set a target to have trustees, staff and students able to engage and respond to greetings (“How are you?”, “I’m fine”), express a word of appreciation (“Well done” or “That’s good”), and say “Thank you” in the local Aboriginal language by the end of this school year.
Each school has taken a different approach to achieving and even exceeding the target, with many going above and beyond to teach their students and staff additional weekly or monthly words and phrases in the local language(s). Morning announcements include Aboriginal languages, O Canada is rotated through the languages of the community/school, and school signage is becoming more reflective of the community culture by including the local languages as well.
Local Aboriginal staff are reporting that they are feeling more appreciated, as they are being sought out more for their expertise. They and others have reported back that students and staff are enthusiastically embracing this target, with it now becoming very common to hear greetings ringing up and down school hallways. It is amazing how fast students can pick up new languages – if only it was as easy for adults!
Research has shown that learning your language helps to provide a sense of personal and cultural identity, and increases students’ self-esteem. Students are proud of where they come from, and everything from culture camps to drumming groups have become exciting activities that have students lining up to partake in. They particularly enjoy challenging their teachers in the languages, saying things like “Tanisa?” (Cree for “How are you?”), and waiting to hear “Namoya nando” (“I’m fine”) back.
It is our hope that students will take the language they are learning home with them, share it with their family members in more authentic contexts, not only improving fluency but also increasing interest and helping to retain and revitalize those languages. Language is a cornerstone of culture, and it is one of the most important ways in which we can keep traditional knowledge alive.
We cannot teach local culture and language from a textbook, nor can we replace the skills and wisdom of the Elders, but our students benefit when our schools and staff honour and reflect the positive values and the significant good in the local cultures and languages. With 70 per cent of our students of Aboriginal descent, we need to embrace the Dene culture and weave it throughout our schools. By understanding and appreciating where we come from, we can move forward more effectively balancing the positive aspects of both the past and present.
In this way, it is hoped as well that the school community is a positive, inclusive space – a space where not only students and staff feel respected, and a space where the entire community can come together to celebrate and honour their unique heritage.
Dr. Curtis Brown is the superintendent and Sarah Pruys is the public affairs coordinator of the South Slave Divisional Education Council.