'With the majority of the country’s aboriginal population under 25, young people are embracing indigenous languages as representatives seek to make cultural issues a focus of the coming election
Quinn Meawasige says he has spent his life walking with “one foot in a moccasin and one foot in a sneaker”.
The indigenous activist and youth council representative with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Meawasige learned to balance both those worlds when he discovered his Aboriginal roots and heritage in a self-imposed stint in rehab as a struggling teenager.
Meawasige, now 21, is far from alone among young indigenous Canadians who are forging a new path paved with old traditions.
There are over 1.4 million aboriginal people in Canada, with the majority of the population now under 25.
More than 45% of on-reserve youth say learning a First Nations language is very important to them, and just over half of them can understand or speak a First Nations language.
A 2014 report from the British Columbia Language Initiative - which seeks to revitalize the province’s First Nations languages - found that the number of semi-fluent speakers had risen significantly since 2010.
The embrace of the language comes as Canada’s aboriginal youth are increasingly finding their voice in culture and politics.
“As an aboriginal youth of this generation, we’re saying culture, language has to be on the forefront of our approach to exercising our rights, the healing that needs to happen within the community,” he said.
“It’s a wave of young people who want to retain their language, who want to contribute to Western society but also make sure they’re rooted and grounded in their culture,” said Meawasige.
Indigenous activism has taken many forms, from the electronic powwow music of A Tribe Called Red to the flash mobs of the Idle No More movement.
Ashley Callingbull made history this year by becoming the first Aboriginal woman to be crowned Mrs Universe - and then calling on First Nations people to vote Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper out of office in the 19 October federal election, criticizing what she called his government’s adversarial approach to First Nations. [Harper was voted out of office - DC]
Brian Maracle, program coordinator of the Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa Mohawk language school outside Toronto, said he’s witnessed the shift since the school opened in 1999.
“Sixteen years ago, our typical student was a middle-aged grandmother,” he said. “And now our typical student is someone in their 20s, maybe even a teenager.”
And he’s noticed his younger students are using the language in new ways.
“They want to be part of this new culture with social media and rap and things like that. They want to do it their way. I’m really surprised at the determination of these young people to use the language and use the language only. They want to function entirely - in our case Mohawk - that’s how they want to live their lives.”
Still, of Canada’s roughly 60 indigenous languages, only Cree, Ojibwa and Inuktituk - an Inuit language - are currently predicted to survive.
Khelsilem, 26, a Vancouver-based indigenous artist and educator, is among the young language revitalization activists trying to keep his own Squamish language from dying out.
He founded the Skwomesh Language Academy, an adult immersion program geared towards spreading the language, which is at the very brink of extinction. That included a pilot project funded through grassroots donations that allowed Khelsilem to live with two other indigenous youth for nine months in an immersion “language house” where they immersed themselves in speaking Squamish.
Khelsilem’s hunger for the language was first stoked by his grandmother.
She lost her ability to speak Squamish in the residential school system - a network of boarding schools for Canada’s aboriginal people that lasted for more than a century and was described by a government Truth and Reconciliation Commission as “a period of cultural genocide”.
Victims of the policy of forced assimilation were first punished for speaking their own language and then found themselves unable to communicate with their elders - or pass on their language to their own children.
Khelsilem’s grandmother lost her own language but insisted that he listen to old cassette tapes of people speaking Squamish.
Khelsilem links the current interest in learning Aboriginal languages among his peers to the political activism of the 1970s and 80s when social justice movements inspired Canada’s aboriginal population to embrace their own identity after decades of what he calls “internalized racism”.
“So you get these kids who are raised by those parents and they started looking around and saying, OK - what do we have that is ours? What do we have that we can claim as ours and we can also be proud of and learn and practice? And language was one of those,” he said.
“I think that’s where a lot of it comes from - this very strong history of our people starting to feel proud of ourselves again and becoming more visible and becoming stronger and becoming more active.”
Aboriginal groups are also pushing to bring culture and language issues to the forefront of Canada’s federal election campaign.
This summer, the AFN presented its policy priorities to the federal parties, which included a demand for more funding for language revitalization and the establishment of a National First Nations Languages Institute.
So far, only the centrist Liberal Party [which won the recent election in Canada - DC] has made a specific campaign promise to directly increase languages funding, though the other major parties have made promises that would boost funding to culture and education.
The Canadian government spends about $9m a year on two aboriginal language preservation programs, a financial commitment critics argue falls short of the need.
But Hjalmer Wenstob, AFN national youth council co-chair, said members of this generation aren’t waiting for someone to bring their culture and language to them: they’ve gone in search of it.
“The truth is our youth can say I love you and they mean it, and they know what that means - and they can say it in their language,” he said.
“It’s a generation of such movement, a generation of such change.”