What can the Indigenous, Irish language revival movements learn from each other?

Endangered language revitalization movements have much to learn from each other say participants and organizers at a panel at Dawson College’s First Peoples’ Week. From left to right: Concordia University professor Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, Concordia University associate professor Emer O’Toole, Tiawentí:non Canadian, coordinator of the First Peoples’ Centre at Dawson College, and Irish language teacher Emer Nic Labhraí. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
For most people, a panel on the Irish-language revival movement, probably wouldn’t be top-of-mind at a First Peoples’ conference, but for Tiawentí:non Canadian,  the decision was a no-brainer.

Canadian was a panel organizer at First Peoples’ Week at Dawson College that ran from April 1-5, an event set up to showcase everything from Inuit, First Nations and Métis culture and food, to outdoor survival workshops, discussions on climate change and language preservation.

Canadian said reflecting on the successes and stumbles in reversing the decline of Irish can offer important points of reflection for Indigenous language revival movements in Canada.

“I took an Irish performance studies with (associate professor) Emer O’Toole at Concordia University (in Montreal), and I couldn’t believe how much the colonialism of Ireland and the loss of language mirrored the colonialism and loss of language in my community,” said Canadian, coordinator of Dawson College’s First Peoples’ Centre, and a member of the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) First Nation.

When policy isn’t enough

In Canada, a country of approximately 37 million people, English and French are the official languages. Around 260,550 people report being able to speak an Indigenous language.

More than 70 Indigenous languages are spoken in Canada according to the  2016 Canadian census.

Some Indigenous language families have thousands of speakers like Algonquian (175,825 speakers) and Inuit (42,065 speakers). Others are in danger of extinction having only several dozens of speakers like Tlingit (225 speakers) and Kutenai (170 speakers).

In Ireland, a country of approximately 4.7 million, 73,803 people report speaking Irish daily outside of the school system in the 2016 national census, so only 1.7 per cent of the population over three years old.

UNESCO lists Irish as “definitely endangered.”

In the Thursday Dawson College panel titled “The Revival of the Irish Language: Successes and Challenges,” Irish language and culture teacher Emer Nic Labhraí said language policy needs to be properly financed to make a difference, saying EU minority language funding has made a big difference in Ireland.

“Policy is not enough,” Nic Labhraí said. “Like (as is sometimes the case in Canada) we in Ireland had wonderful policy on paper, but it wasn’t resourced. The EU has really helped on that point.”


One of biggest hurdles to reversing language loss in Canada and Ireland is undoing the negative attitudes the colonial education systems passed on from generation to generation, the panel discussion heard.

In Canada, residential schools were set up to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people into Canada’s dominant culture. Children were often punished and physically abused for speaking Indigenous languages.

In Ireland, the British school system also sought to assimilate Irish children into English culture. Children were given tally sticks that were notched up during the day each time they spoke Irish. At the end of the day they were beaten one time for each notch.

“People call us anglophones, but we are not,”  says Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, a professor at Concordia University’s School of Irish Studies, and one of the speakers on the panel. “We speak a language that was imposed on us.”

“It is so internalized that the English and language and culture was seen as superior,” Nic Labhrai said. “That still has to be transcended.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. joins Inuit orgs across Canada in slamming Indigenous language bill, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Budget cuts threaten international Sámi language cooperation, Yle News

Iceland: Can environmental diplomacy save Arctic languages?, Blog by Takeshi Kaji

Russia: Sami languages disappear, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Alaskan Inuit dialect added to Facebook’s Translate app, CBC News

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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