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Indigenous languages need more funding: Toronto advocate

Indigenous people in Toronto and across the country are looking to other means to fund language revitalization.

Wooden blocks with Anishinaabemowin words carved on them help students learn the language as part of a program in Toronto.

Eduardo Lima / Metro

Wooden blocks with Anishinaabemowin words carved on them help students learn the language as part of a program in Toronto.

A Toronto advocate is calling out the lack of federal funding available for teaching indigenous languages, as groups across the country launch crowd-funding campaigns to raise money themselves.

Running an immersion program costs up to $400,000, according to Ryan DeCaire, assistant professor for the Centre for Indigenous Studies in the Linguistics program at the University of Toronto. The Aboriginal Languages Initiative, which is out of the Aboriginal Peoples Program administered by the Department of Canadian Heritage, provides between $25,000 to $150,000 of that, if your application is approved.

"When you don't have that language, you have this missing piece of your identity," he said. "It's one of the main sources of our high risk of mental health issues, high suicide rates."

A study out of British Columbia, conducted by the University of Oxford, University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria, suggests that communities with less than half of it's members able to speak their language conversationally have suicide rates six times higher than those with more than half of the community able to speak conversationally. The study said that knowing the traditional languages connects Indigenous people to their past and is a marker of cultural identity.

It's crucial to have quality speakers to speak the language with but the government isn't providing the funding to create proficient speakers, said DeCaire, and indigenous people living in urban centres, particularly Toronto, have little to no access to their languages.

Friendship Centres, the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto and universities offer language classes, but in the form of night classes. DeCaire said bringing languages back is a lifelong commitment, not something that can be picked up in a few hours a week.

According to Statistics Canada, more than half of the Indigenous population live in urban centres, and only 420 Indigenous people in Toronto report an Indigenous language as their mother tongue, another 110 report using an Indigenous language most often at home.

The goal, said DeCaire, is to bring back the intergenerational transmission that has been lost. DeCaire learned Mohawk as an adult and teaches an immersion program at Six Nations to encourage intergenerational passing of the language.

"It's really up to communities to invest their own money from other areas and fund their own students or their own programs," he said.

That's exactly what programs like Young Indigenous Women's Circle of Leadership in Edmonton, Alberta and Kwi Awt Stelmexw in Vancouver, British Columbia are doing.

Rochelle Starr, director of Young Indigenous Women's Circle of Leadership at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, started a GoFundMe account for the program. While it was slow going, it drew attention from politicians and other groups who were able to contribute.

Starr's program is an immersion program for young women aged 10 to 16.

"The objective is to reconnect young women with the language and the teachings of our ancestors," she said.

Khelisilem, program director of Kwi Awt Stelmexw in downtown Vancouver, uses crowd-funding for his Sqaumish immersion program to aid those who are not qualified for funding through the Post Secondary Student Support Program.

The approximately $44,000 they've raised this year will fund three students. The other 12 students in the program will receive funding through the government's Post Secondary Student Support Program, he said.

With each of Khelisilem's programs, another 15 Squamish speakers will exist. After this year's program, there will be 30, and he's seeing an increase in interest.

"A lot of young people who have some sort of connection to the language are really interested, it presents and opportunity for them to become language speakers," he said.

Since the government is responsible for the near death of many Indigenous languages, through things like residential schools, DeCaire said it must commit to more funding.

"When you feel that you're missing something from your identity... you're going to feel lost all the time, you're not going to feel strong, you're not going to feel empowered," he said.

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