Educating young Canadians about Indigenous language and culture: then and now (by Dr. Mela Sarkar)

When I was growing up in downtown Toronto in the 1960s, I expect our elementary-school social studies textbooks must have said something or other about the early encounters of white European settlers with Indigenous peoples in Canada, although I don’t actually remember any words or images from the textbooks we were issued at Brown Public School, Jr. Almost certainly, though, the 1967-ish Ontario social studies curriculum referred to “explorers” and “Indians” and did not use words like “invasion” or “exploitation.”

What I do remember vividly from that time is being taken to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum by my parents or my school, quite frequently, and gravitating, always, to the diorama in the basement. I don’t know why it was located at that low level of the ROM (which, to its credit, now has a large and excellent gallery devoted to Canada’s First Peoples, very much at first level). For children old enough to be taken to museums at all, from about five years old right through to our high school years, I would venture to say that the big glass cases with the life-size figures of dark brown people carrying babies, cleaning fish, practising bows and arrows outside their longhouses and so forth were by far the most interesting thing in the whole museum. They were about real families doing real things, a bit like what our families might have done while off camping in the summer.

It is with astonishment and mixed feelings that I now think back to that early exposure to “Indigenous culture”. The pedagogical punch of this kind of diorama (i.e., not the way to teach children about Indigenous and Canadian history) has been sensitively explored by BILD guest blogger Andrea Sterzuk, with her University of Regina colleague Valerie Mulholland, in a 2011 article (free online) entitled “Creepy White Gaze.” Sterzuk and Mulholland suggest that “the diorama (and the gaze it invites as evidenced by the image in question) is less about the study of The Plains Indians and more about the construction of racialized identities and dominance.”

At the age of five or six, I don’t think it occurred to me that the big dollies in the glass cases were supposedly modelled on originals, real people who spoke real languages that were different from English or the “Heritage” languages my parents spoke. Languages that, like those in my family, had a history, and a present as well as a past. My mother’s parents in Manitoba spoke only Ukrainian to each other and to their children. I knew that some of my cousins on that side still spoke Ukrainian, though my sisters and I didn’t. I knew that a language could be passed down, or not, depending on what one’s parents and grandparents thought was important and why. But no connections were made by our educators between what happens in immigrant families now, and what has been happening for centuries in Indigenous families.

You’d think that for my children’s generation things would have been different. But when my daughter, then 9, came home from her 4e année social studies class at École St-Ambroise in Montreal in 1995, she reported that her teacher had said they would not be studying les amerindiens that year, because the class was about history. History meant people had to be able to read and write. Anything else was prehistory, and prehistory was apparently not part of the curriculum. It was one of my more discouraging moments as a parent.

It is, however, encouraging to remark that the gulf of ignorance about matters linguistic (and other!) separating speakers of Indigenous languages in Canada from white and not-so-white settlers in and out of Canadian cities may slowly be narrowing. We have moved on in the 50 years since I was in grade four, and even in the 20-odd years since my daughter was. A few days ago I was invited by fellow BILDer Michaela Salmon to come talk about Indigenous language revitalization to her advanced ESL class at Collège Brébeuf, one of Montreal’s best-known, rather exclusive and expensive, landmark educational institutions. These 17- or 18-year-olds in their final pre-university year knew quite a bit about the residential school era, that shameful chapter in Canadian history. They could name a few of Canada’s first languages. But, besides (possibly) the one article their teacher had suggested they read to prepare for the guest lecture, they had not yet taken in anything concrete about how the languages are fast disappearing, let alone about the heroic efforts that are being made to bring them back.

The good news is that they are willing and eager to learn. We talked about why it has been so difficult for so many Indigenous families to pass on their languages down the generations, about how whole communities have shifted, willy-nilly, to English or French. Brébeuf is of course a French-language institution, at the top rank of such schools in Canada. I have no doubt that the students have been well drilled in how to speak and write flawless, prescriptively correct French. All the students in Michaela’s classes, regardless of background, were also extremely fluent in English. But I was surprised to learn that only about one-third of them were “Québécois de souche” (old-stock descendants of the original French colonists). The two-thirds that were not de souche were mostly trilingual and proud of their mixed linguistic heritage. The idea that minority languages might need to be defended was not new to them; they were all, as far as I could tell, well conversant with Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, a.k.a. “Bill 101”, and proud of that, too.

“So how about imagining a Bill 101 for Indigenous languages?” I asked them. “How could we as a nation support Canada’s first languages and make them stronger, just like Quebec did for French?” The current government has promised an aboriginal languages bill, widely discussed in the mainstream media; the leader of the current government is a graduate of Brébeuf. It seems likely that a disproportionate number of Brébeuf students will go on to hold influential positions in government or other allied powerful circles.

For now, though: “Double the funding for band-run schools,” suggested one young man. “That’s not realistic, the government won’t do it, but we could use social media to raise the profile of these languages,” parried another. “We need to make them attractive,” the class said, “we need to make everybody excited about learning them.” Hmmm… “We could make it required for some jobs that people have to speak them, then they would learn them” was another idea (needless to say, not a new one in Indigenous circles, but at Brébeuf, probably unheard-of). “This is his old school. If you write to him,” suggested their teacher, “he might write back, or even come by for a visit again.”

Here’s to one creative and innovative teacher at one college, willing to go the extra mile to make sure her students learn what they need to expand their linguistic legislative horizons outside English and French. Here’s to those students, who responded enthusiastically to the guest lecture and then threw themselves into the task of drafting a class letter to the Prime Minister, full of good ideas about how he could draft his new bill. I hope they send that letter. I hope he listens.


Meades, S., & D. Pine. (2016). Investigating the regional labour Market for Indigenous language teachers, administrators and service providers. Shingwauk Education Trust.

Sterzuk, A., & V. Mulholland. (2011). Creepy white gaze: Rethinking the diorama as a pedagogical activity. Alberta Journal of Education, 57(1), 16-27.

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