Episode 9: Breaking New Ground - Mi'kmaw

This episode looks at two projects: a pilot to have Mi'kmaw adopted as an official second language in high school curriculum and Mi'kmaw as the language of instruction for a university level science program.


kidsAs with many other First Nations communities in Canada, the Mi’kmaw of Nova Scotia saw their language decimated after years of imposed “white” schooling, at both federal Indian Day Schools and the only residential school in the province, Ste. Anne’s, in Shubenacadie. A 1991 survey showed that only 37% of aboriginal people in Nova Scotia could speak their language. In 1999, a major survey on the state of the Mi’kmaw language in Nova Scotia showed further decline and that, in one community, it had become extinct.
Pioneering Mi’maw educators and language activists had, during the 70’s and 80’s, perceived this dismaying trend and begun a range of efforts to reverse it. Among these are Sister Dorothy Moore and Bernie Francis, both from the reserve of Membertou on Cape Breton island.
Bernie Francis began his crusade in the mid-70’s, collaborating with a fellow linguist on the development of an orthography that adequately represented the Mi’kmaw sound system. In the 1980’s, he began teaching reading and writing in Mi’kmaw, and doing teacher training, and in 1984, he taught the first university level courses in Mi’kmaw. In addition to ongoing research, teaching and writing endeavors, Bernie Francis is now deciphering and transliterating historical documents of pertinence to the legal interpretation of treaties.

teacherPart 1

In this part of the program, we glimpse a possible future where aboriginal languages are not longer marginal, but instead are recognized for their true value and cultural contribution. In this vision, Mi’kmaw is no longer perceived as a disadvantage or a barrier to getting ahead, but instead as an important stepping stone.
Bernie Francis is passionate when it comes to language. A Mi’kmaw from the Membertou reserve, Francis is on a campaign to bring total immersion schooling to his and other Mi’kmaw communities in Cape Breton. At first parents were suspicious of his plans, afraid for their children’s future if they did not first learn English. Fortified with his visit to New Zealand and the success of Maori immersion programs, he is forging ahead with his vision.

Part 2

This class at the University College of Cape Breton may look ordinary, but it's part of a unique experience. It's a university level science class taught in the Mi'kmaw language, and it combines Mi'kmaw traditional knowledge with modern science. Today's lecture is given by linguist Bernie Francis.

Language Keeper

language keeper83-year old Margarite Johnson, affectionately known as Doctor Granny, is an elder in the Eskasoni community in Cape Breton. All her life she has defended and promoted the Mi'kmaw language and culture. She had received many diplomas and awards, including and Honorary Doctorate. A recognized artist, Margaret Johnson had participated in many official events, ranging from festivals and exhibitions to the Olympic Games. For her, the struggle to preserve and promote the language starts at home.