Indigenous languages projects get boost in latest round of federal funding

When the Woodland Cultural Centre was founded nearly 50 years ago, its mandate was to repair damages caused to Haudenosaunee culture and languages by the residential school system’s long standing legacy.

The centre is located at the former Mohawk Institute residential school in Brantford, Ont., and executive director Janis Monture said supporting the preservation and revitalization of the six Haudenosaunee languages spoken by members of nearby Six Nations of the Grand River is a priority.

“When we do reopen, I want visitors to walk through the language department and I want them to see and hear our languages be spoken in that building where it was taken away from us,” said Monture.

Monture was among a group of First Nations people in Ontario who met with Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault earlier this week as he embarked on a virtual tour across Canada to announce funding to support Indigenous languages.

Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, last November. Guilbeault announced funding and projects to support Indigenous languages this week. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“A succession of Canadian governments have created a situation where we’ve harmed Indigenous Peoples in many ways including in trying to take away their languages,” said Guilbeault.

“We are trying to right a historic wrong.”

He announced that Canada is contributing more than $10 million to fund 78 projects in the province from 2019–2021. It’s a part of a commitment in the federal government’s 2019 budget of $333.7 million over five years for Indigenous languages.

Through the program, the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres is helping 44 community-based language projects, including initiatives at the Woodland Cultural Centre.

“Our languages are the essence of our identity, the expression of our culture, our history,” said Claudette Commanda, chief executive officer of the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres, in a statement.

“It is vital to revitalize and protect our languages for the next generations; our children deserve their birthright to language and culture.”

A total of 372 projects received funding through the federal program for 2020-2021.

“We really tried to listen to what the needs of the communities are. So for some people it’s a language app, others it’s immersion programs, for others it’s children books, or training or trainers,” said Guilbeault.

“We’ve shown a great flexibility of funding different kinds of things, recognizing the needs are not the same and we don’t know best — the people in the community know best.”

Janis Monture is the executive director at the Woodland Cultural Centre. (Patricio Munoz)

For Monture, it meant developing an access policy for its collection of ceremonial recordings in Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ (Cayuga language), and creating new museum panels in all six Haudenosaunee languages.

“It’s really important that we integrate as much of our Haudenosaunee languages throughout our museum exhibition,” she said.

“It’s really important for people to understand our origin stories, and the importance the Thanksgiving Address [prayer] has in our community.”

The centre applied for funding again this year as well to create a recording studio on-site to continue capturing oral histories from traditional knowledge keepers.

“Sometimes because of funding issues, we’ve had to choose what language gets priority. It’s tough,” said Monture.

“I’m glad they’re doing major investments into this. It’s a long time coming, especially if I look at the work we’ve been doing in the 1980s. In some respects we’ve made major groundwork but there’s still a lot of work to be done to get those language fluency levels up in communities.”