By LEWIS MACKINNON*
By LEWIS MACKINNON*
The first Gaelic speakers came to Nova Scotia over 200 years ago. They have left us a legacy of place names which they brought from Scotland. When these first settlers left "the old country", there were no legislated rights for their language or culture. There was no "official status" for Gaelic at the time they left Scotland, and there is still no "official status" for Gaelic in Scotland today. Most of these early settlers did not understand nor speak English.
It has been said that these early Gaelic-speaking settlers (Gaels as they called themselves in their own language) were much like the Native population that they encountered. They settled along religious and familial lines similar to the way they had in Scotland. They became like an indigenous people themselves. In most cases, when they first settled Eastern Nova Scotia, there were no other inhabitants, but themselves and the Native Indian population. From what folklore we have of this period, it is evident that Gaels and Natives got along without incident.
At the time the Gaels landed, there were three other major linguistic groups, apart from the Native Indian; the French Acadians, the German-speaking peoples that settled in the south shore area of the province, and the English speaking population. The linguistic reality of all these groups changed little until the beginning of the 20th century.
Today, there are many languages spoken in Nova Scotia. French is spoken by more than 100,000 people. Within this number is found more than 10,000 French Acadian speakers. Although French has Official Language Status at the federal level in Canada, French Acadian is similar to Gaelic and every other minority language spoken in Nova Scotia, in that none carry Official Status.
Although almost a third of the population of the province claims Gaelic/Scottish/Highland Scottish ancestry. The resident and the visitor will be hard pressed to find evidence that Gaelic is spoken in the traditional areas where Gaels first settled. Although most descendants of the Gaels can readily identify their ancestry, few still speak the language. The loss of confidence in language and culture after centuries of strife is one of the reasons why one does not easily find Gaelic signage and other external manifestations of a Gaelic community.
Generation after generation of Gaels was raised in Nova Scotia without an opportunity to learn their own language. They learned English in school. The majority of Gaels could not read or write in their own language. By the 1930s parents were not teaching Gaelic to their children in the traditional Gaelic-speaking areas of the province. Many parents thought that their children would have more opportunity if they learned English. Gaels tried through various initiatives to bring attention to the plight of their language. They gained little progress as governments of the day did not listen to their petitions for assistance. Few in positions of influence believed that Gaelic held any value.
It is not evident that this opinion has changed amongst authorities in Nova Scotia. However the law has changed, especially international law.
In the last provincial census, it is recorded that 415 people indicated Gaelic as their maternal language. Certainly there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of others, who have Gaelic as a second language. They have words, expressions, and conversational aptitude in the language. The census doesn't say a thing about this group.
The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, United Nations, 1992 states;
2. States shall adopt appropriate legislative and other measures to achieve those ends.
This article reflects countries such as Canada, and Canada is far behind concerning this question.
Some say if Gaelic receives Official Status then every minority language group should as well. Well, why not? Why not the first four languages that are still spoken in Nova Scotia today? That would be a start wouldn't it? What would be wrong with four official languages in Nova Scotia? What would be wrong with five? Who has given serious thought to this? Has anyone ever researched this? Although French Acadians came over to this land 400 years ago, they still have no Official Status in Nova Scotia. Doesn't this tell us that we should have Official Status?
Should Gaelic have Official Status in Nova Scotia? Indeed, it should. For many generations, Gaels have worked to maintain their language in Nova Scotia. Most work as volunteers and they are great heroes in our midst for that they have done for Gaelic. But, without the serious presence of Gaelic in the schools, institutions, and a high profile in the community, it will be extremely difficult to keep Gaelic from dying.
This is why policy and Official status under law are of the utmost importance. With legislation the Gaelic community will realize that there is moral, financial and societal support for their language. The community will then have an avenue to work towards the things they feel are important for the continued development of their language and culture.
Wouldn't Nova Scotia be progressive in the eyes of the International Community if it would accept as policy Official Status for more than one language? Nova Scotia would be the leader regarding this question in all of North America. After years of struggle, disappointment, and exclusion Gaelic speakers and other minority language speakers would receive rights for their own language. Furthermore, the province would be acting justly according to International Law. What would be wrong with that?
*Lewis MacKinnon is co-president, Chomhairle
na Gàidhlig, Alba Nuadh / Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia and
a co-editor of shunpiking's Mac-talla, our annual Gaelic edition which
will be published this June.
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