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Canada’s cut in language preservation funding protested

OTTAWA – Hundreds of Natives from across Canada and northern New York marched on Parliament Hill Dec. 5, demanding that the new government reinstate funding that had been earmarked for language preservation in Native communities. The Canadian Heritage announced in November that it would not be providing $172 million that Native communities were expecting. Instead, $5 million a year for seven years would be allocated for language purposes.

“Our people are frustrated and angry,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine. “And they have a right to be. We feel betrayed and we simply can’t be silent about this betrayal.”

Protesters, which included busloads of children, met at a hotel in downtown Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, and marched together to Parliament Hill. Carrying aboriginal flags and signs critical of the government cuts, the group of roughly 400 made their case known.

“This rally is to underscore that First Nations people are here to stay, and that we will not remain out sight and out of mind,” said AFN Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse. “We want what all people want for our children – good health, safety, education and equal opportunity. We will not accept less.”

The rally, called the “National Protest to Save Our Legacy,” was organized by the AFN and Chiefs of Ontario.

In 2002, the Canadian government announced that it was allocating $172.5 million to be distributed to Native communities over an 11 year period for “protection, preservation and maintenance of Aboriginal languages.” Native authorities were notified in October of this year that government officials had dropped that to $35 million.

During the rally, speakers on both sides of the issue addressed the crowd.

Using a bullhorn, Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice attempted to tell the crowd that his department was not responsible for the cuts, but few could hear him over the loud jeers and boos.

“This government is trying to do real work to improve the living circumstances of aboriginal Canadians,” Prentice said.

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Sault MP Tony Martin braved below-freezing temperatures to lend his support to the cause and defend the importance of language preservation.

“When language and culture are in the community, people can become healthy, in mind, body and spirit and the social problems will be properly addressed,” Martin said. “First Nations people in my community remind me of the importance of the language funding. This keeps their language alive, for the children in their communities, schools, and Native governments.”

Across North America, Native communities are struggling to retain their languages; and over the past decade, extreme measures have been taken to preserve a community’s dying language.

In Akwesasne, the Ahkwesahsne Mohawk Board of Education implemented an immersion program for elementary-aged students. Recent footage of students participating in the program has shown that school immersion can be successful.

“The program has taken on more of a holistic setting and is culturally based,” said Kanienkeha (Mohawk language) specialist
Kaweienonni Peters. “Because we as Rotinonshon:ni [Iroquois] have a strong oral history, the program is designed to focus more on creating functional fluency among the students and less time on reading and writing of the language.”

Students in the immersion program rely on resources that are not always readily available. Over the past several years Peters has been developing various books, compact discs and DVDs in Mohawk so students in the immersion program have reinforcement of what they’re learning.

Funding for developing those resources comes from the Canadian government and the immersion program will be directly affected by language funding cuts.

If the funding isn’t there, Peters will have to find other sources to help keep the immersion program successful.

Peters and students in the Mohawk immersion program participated in the rally. The students, who were approximately 10 and under, carried signs that read “Respect Us.”

Canadian authorities have indicated that they hope to develop effective programs to help 50 languages at risk of extinction.