Commentary – Heritage language loss

Pearl Lorentzen

Like many people who grew up in rural Alberta, I am a monolingual English speaker.

Also, like many Canadians, I know very little about the cultures or languages of my ancestors. A few spoke English before coming to North America, but not all. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, my home town didn’t even offer French classes.

There is a lot of talk, and rightly so, on the loss of cultural knowledge and language by Indigenous communities.

I completely agree that more should be done about this, especially since the languages and cultures of these people were taken by force through residential schools and the sixties scoop. These were both programs by the Canadian government to ‘remove the Indian from the child.’

To a lesser extent, the same thing was done to immigrants. Every honest Canadian knows that everyone except the Indigenous population are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Immigrants were expected to not only learn English or French, but not pass on heritage languages.

Within the conversation around Indigenous rights, the most common word for colonials, immigrants, non-Indigenous etc. is settlers.

There is an interesting socio-linguistic defence for this term. Settler colonialism happens when people from a foreign country take over another country and decide to make it home. Canada is a prime example of this type of colonialism. Studies have shown that settler colonialism does more damage to cultures and language than other types of colonialism.

In modern history, a lot, but not all, colonialism is done by European countries. An exception is Japan colonizing Korea from 1910-45. There are others.

Most Canadians have some disconnect from their cultural heritage. Instead of being divided from language revitalization movements, maybe Canadians of all stripes could think about their own cultural gaps. Language revitalization is the quest to bring back or save languages that are not being passed on to children.

The older I get, the more Canadian I become, but at the same time, the more I miss having a set ethnic identity.

Canadian is my national identity. I am very proud of it.

There are cultural elements to being Canadian, but there are no genetic markers to indicate that I am related to other Canadians. We’ve come together by choice, not family. Most of us or our ancestors had a choice. The choice was taken away from many Indigenous peoples, which is a big difference in their situations.

However, as Canadians we share a corporate heritage language and culture loss. There is space in Canada for Norwegian Canadians, Cree Canadians, Japanese Canadians and Lebanese Canadians. There’s also space for mixed Canadians.

However, not knowing what that mix is or anything about those cultures can be daunting. It’s time to celebrate the differences and help each other find those cultural and language nuggets which were lost.

Rural Alberta has a few more challenges than the cities, but we might be surprised when we start asking around what people know and are willing to teach.

Also, there’s an app for that! Such as apps for language learning and cultural recipes, etc.

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