Cultural appropriation is a touchy topic in Canada these days, with the recent controversy in Canadian media over whether it is appropriate for nonindigenous writers to take on a native voice for artistic expression. But Marc Miller, a member of Canada’s Parliament, decided he was on solid ground in giving a speech in Kanyen’kéha, the language of the Mohawks, in the House of Commons on Thursday.
“Language is one of those things that, if you apply the appropriation rule, would die faster,” Mr. Miller said in a telephone interview. He said he was inspired to learn the language because the district he represents in Quebec covers traditional Mohawk land.
“I stand here to honor the Mohawk language, and I pay my respects to their people,” Mr. Miller said in Kanyen’kéha to mark the beginning of Canada’s National Aboriginal History Month. He said in the short speech that he hoped to hear the language more often in Parliament, and that more Canadians would “be proud to use it to speak to one another.”
Indigenous languages are dying in Canada, as they are in much of the industrialized world, largely as a consequence of past government efforts to stamp out their use and force assimilation into the larger population. In Canada, that was accomplished through residential boarding schools where indigenous students were forbidden to speak their native tongues.
The government has tried to make amends for this history in recent years, after a wrenching Truth and Reconciliation Commission laid bare the amount of abuse some 150,000 indigenous students experienced at the government-financed schools over more than a century. The former prime minister, Stephen Harper, apologized on behalf of the government. His successor, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, followed up with a vow to adopt all 94 recommendations from the commission, known in Canada as calls to action.
The government has promised to spend about $90 million Canadian (in United States currency, about $67 million) over the next three years to support indigenous languages and culture, including $69 million Canadian for such things as classes to keep alive native languages. It has also committed to work with the indigenous population to codevelop an Indigenous Languages Act that will help ensure the preservation and revitalization of indigenous languages.
Fewer than 600 people in Canada cited Kanyen’kéha as their mother tongue in the country’s 2011 census. All but a few of the 60 indigenous languages that still exist in the country are expected to disappear within the next generation.
Mr. Miller, a 44-year-old member of the Liberal Party from Montreal, has only a basic capacity in the language so far. He has been studying since January through an online course developed by Brian Maracle and his daughter, Zoe Hopkins, from Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford, Ontario, the largest First Nations reserve in Canada.
Ms. Hopkins and her father both learned the language as adults and began the online course about three years ago to meet demand that they couldn’t meet with their chronically oversubscribed two-year immersion course. That immersion course accepted only a dozen students at a time.
The response to the digital offering has been overwhelming.
“Our online course is always full and has a long waiting list,” she said. “In our community, we were down to a handful of speakers from birth, and now people who speak it as a second language is rising.”
Canada’s Library of Parliament said Mr. Miller’s speech was the first time the language had been spoken in either house since Confederation in 1867. Last month, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who represents Winnipeg Center in the House of Commons, read a statement in Cree. Both men provided the House with translations in English and French because House interpreters do not translate indigenous languages.
For Mr. Miller, the point is not to become fluent, but to show respect and build bridges to the indigenous community. “If you can say a few words in a person’s language, it automatically breaks down a barrier,” he said.
“Marc has done it the right way,” said Don Rusnak, who is Anishinaabe and is chairman of the House indigenous caucus. “He’s doing it out of respect, not for his advantage.”
Click to WATCH: Canadian Politician Made History By Giving A Speech Entirely In The Mohawk Language