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Pushing to recognize Indigenous languages

Perry Simon was holding up an eagle feather gifted by his great aunt when he asked the five major federal party leaders about whether they intend to make First Nations, Metis and Inuit languages part of the official languages of the country.

“It’s a question that should’ve been asked, addressed and resolved decades ago,” said the Kanehsata’kehró:non. “If leaders have a plan, it needs to include Indigenous languages in Canada and Quebec.”

On Wednesday, September 8, during the federal election French-language leaders debate, Simon sought answers on the topic of respecting and honouring Onkwehón:we languages.

The Kanesatake community member was met with a range of answers from the participating leaders present at the debate held in Gatineau. The leaders in question were incumbent prime minister and Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh, Green Party leader Annamie Paul and Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet.

As the Liberals and Conservatives bump heads in the electoral lead, Trudeau was quick to give his party credit for nominating Nunavik-native Inuk governor general, Mary May (Ningiukudluk) Simon, who speaks both English and Inuktitut.

Although Trudeau said he would add Indigenous languages to Canada’s official list, O’Toole scrambled to answer the question – instead emphasizing the need for services to accommodate non-English or French speakers. Ultimately, O’Toole indicated French and English would remain the only two official languages.

Meanwhile, Singh, Paul and Blanchet all agreed to make these languages official if elected into office.

“It’s a small thing that we can do that’s going to have a big impact,” said Singh.

Throughout the rest of the Indigenous rights portion of the debate, leaders answered a medley of questions tackling issues, including the drinking water crisis affecting Onkwehón:we communities, along with the topic of reconciliation.

“I’m always looking to give our platform to Indigenous leadership to speak for themselves and I hope that one day, one of our parties will have a female leader from one of our First Nations because it’s time to have that leadership,” said the Green Party leader when answering Simon.

The idea of submitting a question about Indigenous languages came to Simon as he listened to Canada’s newly sworn-in governor general delivering her first speech in July.

“Even though I don’t understand Inuktitut, hearing her speak the language when she presented herself felt like music to my ear,” said Simon. “She addressed the country in the language her mother, grandparents and ancestors taught her – and that touched me like velvet to my heart.”

When he heard news of the hundreds of complaints made against the appointment of the Inuk leader, Simon said each complaint felt like “a slap to the face.”

“When I asked my question, I thought of all Indigenous Peoples – including Ms. Mary Simon,” said the Kanehsata’kehró:non. “The following day, when I saw the debate translated in Inuktitut, I hoped the governor general would hear my question.

“I want her to know that I asked this question because I no longer want people to insult us for speaking our mother tongues,” continued Simon.

After growing up in Kanesatake, Simon moved to Montreal at the age of 19 to pursue his studies. He subsequently stayed in the metropolis where he still resides today.

Having spent the majority of his life in the city, Simon explained it wasn’t always in his nature to explicitly flaunt his Kanien’kehá:ka status.

As years went by and that Onkwehón:we representation became more common in different spheres, Simon found himself more assertive of his identity.

While he held up his feather and showcased his beaded necklace in front of millions of viewers, there’s one thing Simon still lusts after.

“However proud I am to be Mohawk, it’s the language I’m still missing,” said the 63-year- old. “I hope I still have time in my life to learn it.”

Not being a fluent Kanien’kéha speaker only further pushed Simon to ask leaders this burning question.

“In the past, they wanted to erase who we were and this applied to our languages as well – they wanted them to disappear, so that they no longer had to be recognized,” he said. “But, like everything else, our languages cannot be killed. They cannot and we will not let them die.”

Simon, who will soon be turning 64, said he hopes for one wish as elections near an end.

“There’s a lot left to be done in order to recognize our rights and while I’m still alive, I want to see Indigenous languages recognized as official languages in Canada,” he said.

“Recognition is what I’m looking for. The recognition that Indigenous people and languages are important in Canada and Quebec.”

Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door

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Laurence Brisson Dubreuil is a multimedia journalist based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, Canada. She holds a BA in journalism, with a minor in law and society from Montreal's Concordia University.

Laurence began reporting with The Eastern Door in the fall of 2020, after completing a fellowship with the Institute for Investigative Journalism, a national investigative organization.

Among many things, Laurence is passionate about investigative reporting, human rights, and environmental issues.

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