Montreal — Like most Canadians, Elizabeth Pruszynski is multilingual.
“I speak the colonial languages,” she says, “French,
English and Spanish.”
But now Pruszynski, 38, is learning a fourth language,
and it’s not like the others: it’s Mohawk, one of the hundreds of tongues
spoken in the region before Europeans arrived.
“It’s a cultural interest because I’m from here,” she replies when asked
why she signed up for the evening class in a downtown café. “It’s like when
you’re in Italy and you want to learn a few words.”
The same answer was echoed by her classmates—none of whom are Native.
“I look at myself as still being a guest on First Nations land, and if
we’re going to be a guest on First Nations land, it’s polite to learn their
language,” says Ian Christopher Goodman, 41, who owns a gardening
Although people with Aboriginal ancestry make up more than 4 percent
of Canada’s population, First Nations language classes were practically
unheard of until recently. But once Native languages started showing
up on class schedules at universities, public community centers and tribal
immersion programs, interest boomed from Native and non-Native learners
At the Native Montréal center, a government grant funds language
classes in Innu, Cree and Mohawk. Three hundred people signed up when
the classes first launched last September; because only 60 spots were available,
priority was given to people of Native ancestry and to the parents of
“When we announced it on our website and on Facebook, it exploded,”
says Berenice Mollen-Dupuis (Innu), who is responsible for education at
the center. “I couldn’t handle a waiting list with 300 names on it.”
Universities have also seen a need and have stepped up to offer programs
teaching Indigenous languages.
Concordia University became the first university in Quebec to launch
the First Peoples Studies program three years ago, says program director
Karl Hele (Ojibwe). The school is teaching Mohawk, Inuktitut and
The University of Montréal, the second-largest university in Canada,
is getting ready to start its Native studies program in September, according
to Professor Simon Harel, the co-director of the department of world
languages and literatures. The program, which will focus on Native oral
traditions and literature, will be the first of its kind in the French-language
academic world, he says.
“We will teach Innu and Mohawk just like we teach Spanish and
German,” Harel says.
More than 60 First Nations languages are spoken in Canada; most of
them are endangered due to declining numbers of speakers.
Harel says it took a while for Quebecers, who see themselves as a
French-speaking minority in Canada, to realize they are also colonizers.
“It’s difficult to recognize another minority that is smaller than us,”
Ryan Decaire (Kanien’kehá:ka) teaches in the Mohawk immersion
program on the Kahnawà:ke reserve outside of Montréal. He estimates
that out of 10,000 people on the reserve, only 5 percent speak the language—and
all of them are over age 65.
He has a simpler explanation for why the Native languages are a hot
ticket now: “Knowing your culture and your language has become cool;
there is no stigma anymore,” Decaire says.
According to Statistics Canada’s survey from 2011, only 17 percent
of Aboriginal people in Canada can conduct a conversation in a Native
language. Scholars blame Canada’s residential school system, in which
First Nations children were taken from their families and forced to attend
government boarding schools where they were punished for speaking
Native tongues. Residential schools were used to assimilate generations of
Aboriginal people from the 1880s and well through the mid-1900s.
“At the school, Native languages were absolutely forbidden,” Hele says.
“If you spoke your language, you’d be strapped, beaten, put into closets,
have a needle put through your tongue.”
Although the last residential school closed in 1996, the impact of the
schools—including a loss of Indigenous languages and cultures—is still
felt today, Hele says.
Canada’s two strongest Native languages—Cree (87,600 speakers) and
Inuktitut (spoken in the far north by some 37,615 people)—will probably
make it through the next 100 years, Hele says, while the future is less
certain with Mohawk and the other languages.
“Honestly, I would argue that 100 percent are in danger of disappearing.
It all depends on the timeline—five, 10, 20, 30, 50 or 100 years,”
Take the Naskapi language, for instance. It is spoken in only one
village of Quebec, a village of approximately 500 people, according to
Mollen-Dupuis. The Abenaki language is even worse off. Although there
are about 2,000 Abenaki Indians in Quebec, only four people speak the
language, Mollen-Dupuis said. She is trying to get government funding
for an Abenaki class in Montréal next year.
Despite the growth of First Nations language offerings at universities,
public community centers and tribal immersion programs, Hele says the
Canadian government isn’t doing enough. If the government wants to get
serious about saving Native tongues, it should require all students to learn
them in school, he says.
“You want to graduate high school in Montréal? You should learn
French, and you should learn English, and you should learn Mohawk,”
he says. “You need to learn the closest Aboriginal community language.
SIDEBAR: FUN FACTS ABOUT CANADA’S FIRST NATIONS LANGUAGES
» In Inuktitut, the language of the
Inuit, there are many words to
describe the weather (different
types of snow, for example) and
different psychological states,
according to Sylvie Cote, from
the Avataq Cultural Institute in
Montréal. The institute began
offering Inuktitut classes four years
ago. Inuktitut grammar is very
complex, she says. In addition
to male masculine and feminine
nouns, as in Spanish, there are
also neuter nouns, as in German,
and there are numerous past
and future tenses. “People don’t
expect it to be as difficult as it is,”
» The Ojibwe language, with some
24,000 speakers in Canada, has
more verbs than nouns—not the
case with European languages,
says professor Karl Hele. Ojibwe
forms new words from existing
words. The word for “Chinese,” for
example, literally translates as “the
people who drink leaf soup,” or
tea, he says.
»In the Mohawk language, rather
than just singular and plural, there
is also dual—something Mohawk
has in common with ancient
Greek, according to Mohawk
instructor Roy Wright. The Cree
and Ojibwe languages are written
using symbols that were invented
by a Christian missionary in the
19th century. Some symbols look
like triangles that face different