A far-reaching impact of a language course at Renison

For the first time in its long history of offering language courses, Renison University College is offering students the opportunity to learn an Indigenous language.

Kanien’kehá (Mohawk), the original language of the Mohawk people, is an endangered Indigenous language with less than 2,500 speakers.

In today’s age of reconciliation, support from Canadians, inside and outside of the Diocese of Huron, is both important and impactful given the endangered status of many Indigenous languages and the historical, current, and ongoing effects of colonization.

Renison, your Anglican college at the University of Waterloo, sits on land granted to the Mohawk people in the Haldimand Treaty of 1784. Instructor, Nicole Bilodeau noted how Renison offering this course on traditional Mohawk land demonstrates “support towards the Kanien’kehá:ka and other Haudenosaunee peoples.”

Nicole Bilodeau, Mohawk language instructor at Renison.

The impact of this course is far-reaching. Bilodeau hopes that it has had “a positive impact on the students, that it helps shape or inform their worldview, especially as to how language and culture intersect.”

Bilodeau stresses how this course “introduces people to a different way of seeing the world – a worldview that is a lot more compassionate and grateful than what we’re used to in western society.” Learning about and from a variety of worldviews allows students to begin understanding the depth and complexity behind Indigenous language learning.

“Language is directly tied to sense of identity as an Indigenous person,” points Bilodeau.

For student Katie Turriff this is a key reason why she took the course:

“I always knew I was Mohawk, but I never really took into consideration what that meant for my identity.”  She took the course to honour her family members “who lost the language over generations because of shame and assimilation.”  In this sense, she says, language serves as a way of reclaiming culture, identity, and sense of self.

Increasingly, Indigenous languages are being lost and not learnt, with many endangered and close to extinction. Kanien’kehá is verb-based, explains Turriff, and as such the values that we live by are built into what we say as opposed to a noun-based language such as English:

“If Kanien’kehá is lost, its associated value system is then threatened”, says Turriff.

Teaching introductory Mohawk addresses the threat by beginning Renison’s process and contribution toward ongoing efforts within Canada to preserve Indigenous cultures.

“In one sense, language allows us to bridge into a culture but it also functions as a bridge between cultures” says Renison’s Academic Dean, Kofi Campbell.

Yet, this is a task that needs to be taken on by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,

“If we are talking about nation to nation [Canada and First Nations] relations, a part of the work has to be settler society learning about Indigenous languages as a reversal of the historical trajectory that made English and/ or French the primary language,” says Campbell.

As our country has such a deep history of harming Indigenous peoples and cultures, it is paramount we all find ways to work toward reconciliation. Renison is responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action number 16, which calls upon post-secondary institutions to develop university and college programming in Indigenous languages.

According to Campbell, offering Kanien’kehá is “an important part of our fulfilling obligations to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – for universities to begin playing a much stronger part in helping to preserve Indigenous languages and Indigenous culture generally.”

Expanding on its first Indigenous language course, Renison has plans to offer intermediate levels of Mohawk as well as other Indigenous languages. In Campbell’s words, “this is really just the beginning of a long process fulfilling our obligations – obligations which we are eager to fulfill.”

We encourage all readers to watch for opportunities in which they too may participate in the necessary work of reconciliation.

Anna Fletcher-Marsh is Marketing & Administrative Coordinator at Renison.