Halifax Political Forum on Language Rights

June, 2003

The following article -- reproduced from Mac-talla, annual Gaelic supplement published by shunpiking magazine in association with the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia -- reports on the May 18 Halifax Political Forum on language rights.

On the eve of his execution, American radical and trade unionist Joe Hill famously told his comrades, "don't mourn, organize," and although we are still far from witnessing the demise of the Gaelic, Acadian and Mi'kmaq languages in Atlantic Canada, the message from the most recent Halifax Political Forum appeared to echo something of the same sentiment.

Representatives of the Gaelic, Acadian French, Mi'kmaq and Irish language communities met for an unprecedented dialogue on language rights, entitled "Non-official" Languages: A Tradition, a Right, a Future.

"Queen Victoria would not have been amused," moderator Tony Seed of shunpiking magazine said as he opened the Forum on May 18 during Victoria Day weekend, as part of a Gaelic Awareness Month initiative.

"You hear about endangered species around the world all the time -- but when was the last time you thought about languages being endangered?

"On the other hand, when was the last time you heard someone speaking Gaelic, Mi'kmaq or Acadian French? The pressure on and decline of these and other languages is closely connected to the issue of globalization and human rights. It is peculiar that some animal and plant species are protected internationally whereas the language rights of human beings, although equally if not more endangered, are not. Yet some 2,400 of the 6,000 languages and their speakers are facing rapid extinction because of language shift, change, attrition, language genocide, linguicide, language murder and death. There is a race between assimilation and democratic renewal as part of the upsurge in anti-imperialist struggle and for national sovereignty and self-determination on the world scale," he said.

"The premise of this Forum," he continued, "is that all languages have equal worth. In this use of the term 'linguistic minorities', the term minority is defined in terms of power, not numbers. They are a linguistic minority in relationship to the official language, not in terms of the numbers of people who speak that language."

One language in the world disappears every week, he point out. The number of speakers of Gaelic, Acadian French, Mi'kmaq and other First Nation languages are under severe pressure. Canada proclaims its showpiece legislation to the world -- the Official Languages Act, the Multiculturalism Act, Charter of Rights and Freedoms, etc. -- yet fails to provide minority languages with a right and a guarantee. They are instead depicted as and reduced to the status of so-called "heritage languages" -- a 19th century British colonial concept and legacy to protect a hierarchy of language rights based on the chauvinist myth of "two founding nations." The equality of all languages is a growing concern and a basic democratic right, part of the demand for the renewal of Canada and for a new Constitution which vests sovereignty in the people and provides their collective decision-making power with a guarantee.

As for Gaelic, Lewis MacKinnon (president, Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia, co-sponsor of the Forum) said two premises underlie the work for its renewal: all languages must be deemed equal, and this struggle does not end at the Nova Scotia border. It matters for the multitude of languages spoken in Canada. In its largest domain, Scotland, Gaelic has no legal status, and minority languages have no status in Canada either.

Governments played and play a direct role in assimilation, e.g., through the Education Act of 1861 the then-British colony removed provisions to teach any other languages than English, when Gaelic was at its peak, more numerous than English in eastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Internal colonization took place -- humiliation, confusion and self-doubt.

Yet Nova Scotia profits today from "Celtic" cultural tourism. It has a legal and moral obligation to provide language rights with legal protection and secure funding, rather than a patchwork of programs.

Patricia Doyle Bedwell (director, Transitional Year Program, Dalhousie University) vividly outlined the cultural genocide directed against Aboriginal peoples, especially with the infamous system of residential schools such as Shubenacadie NS[1929], to assimilate Mi'kmaq and disconnect them from family, traditions, language and world outlook.

"I do not feel that there was 'language loss' but that the language was ripped out of us," Patrcia said. Students were forbidden to speak Mi'kmaq; it was stigmatized as an inferior language, with the aim of training the Mi'kmaq as domestics and menial labourers.

The Mi'kmaq language is failing, as are most Aboriginal languages, with the exception of Cree. The Constitution does not recognize First Nations and their languages, while Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly defines "linguistic minorities" as English and French -- also enshrined as "official languages." In the legal system and in terms of treaty rights, it took the Supreme Court of Canada until 1996 to accept the oral tradition, but with the stipulation that the oral record must be translatable according to Eurocentric definitions.

The government depicts aboriginal languages as "heritage languages," a concept she condemned: "a language is vibrant, evolves and grows."

The Mi'kmaq have persistently fought for their rights, to the extent that six years ago they assumed jurisdiction over their own education, only to be sapped by the lack of funding and Native teachers.

"Teachers, funds, infrastructure and parental support are vital. We cannot buy into the dominant outlook that English is the main way to go. If we have to fight against the tide, then we fight against the tide."

Jean Léger (executive director, La Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse[FANE]), expressed the enthusiasm of both FANE and himself to participate. "Being a francophone in Nova Scotia is a daily struggle."

In his paper, he traced the history of the Acadians as a distinct people since 1604 -- their relations with the Mi'kmaq, deportation by British colonialism, regroupement (return), stigmatization as second class people from the time of Lord Durham[1840]onwards -- and their persistent fight, especially since the first national convention at Memramcook, New Brunswick, in 1881, to regroup and resist assimilation. Even by the late 1800s French still had to be taught secretly in the schools.

Despite the Official Languages Act 1969, Acadian French has no legal status in Nova Scotia. Acadians had to fight in the courts to force Nova Scotia to grant French-medium schools in 1998 -- the last province to recognize this right. Nevertheless, positive developments have taken place since the 1960s: the number of Acadian francophones has stabilized, though with a slight decrease. Acadians constitute 4.1 per cent of the population, with 12,000 francophones living in Halifax. And some 100,000 Nova Scotians are also bilingual. But the right to health and social services in the language of the people exists only on paper. It is especially important in areas where Acadians are highly concentrated, such as Cheticamp and Isle Madame, Clare and Argyle, etc.

FANE is deeply concerned, said Mr. Léger, about the impact of cultural imperialism on the youth, the pressure to out-migrate, and the economic problems in coastal communities, and develops broad programs on all these fronts, as an umbrella organization of 20 member groups.

Language diversity and co-operation is vital to Canada's future as a nation. "Do we want the U.S. melting pot," he concluded, "or a model where all languages are equal and valued?"

Pàdraig Ó Siadhail (D'Arcy McGhee Chair of Irish Studies, Saint Mary's University) said "there are lots of similarities with the fight for the Irish language: colonization, marginalization, loss of ancestral language and having to fight through the courts to earn a few crumbs from the system."

Despite Irish having official status in the 1937 Constitution, Ireland provided no means to guarantee the right of Irish citizens to speak their language. Incredibly, it did not demand equal rights for Irish when it joined the European Union in 2002.

The struggle for Irish has been waged tenaciously every inch of the way. Significant fronts of struggle are political, legal and at the base. The growth of Irish-medium schools (now over 100) and daycares is a triumph of the community over vested interests, he said. The struggle in the field of cultural outlook is crucial.

In Northern Ireland, language is highly politicized, e.g., Britain and Ireland recognized Ulster Scots as an official language as part of the Good Friday Agreement, affording it equal status with Irish, despite the fact that the European Union could not find a single native speaker. This manoeuvre is a pro-British attempt to "counter the rise of the Irish language movement -- part of a political agenda to hijack esteem for the Irish language."

The spirit of the ensuing discussion was that people have to decide their own destiny so that history does not repeat itself. All panelists affirmed the importance of the issue, recommending that the Halifax Forum should organize another broader session for the fall as well as in communities in different areas of Nova Scotia.

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The Halifax Forum was initiated by the People's Front with the support of shunpiking magazine, Fernwood Publishing and the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group. Over 350 people attended its nine forums from January 29 to April 4 on the theme of "Peace and Nations in the 21st Century: Understanding the Causes of War."

You may receive updates of forthcoming Forums by subscribing o its listserve at forums_info@yahoo.com

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