A McGill student and professor realized they both speak Mi'kmaq; it changed everything
MONTREAL -- A very specific milestone passed recently, unnoticed except by those who happened to read a tweet by John Robert Sylliboy on Tuesday.
“I have goosebumps,” he wrote.
Sylliboy had just met with his PhD supervisor at McGill University. They had a long discussion about his research, over Zoom, which is nothing unusual in itself.
But there was one extraordinary thing about the meeting: it took place not in English, nor French: it was all in Mi’kmaq -- a likely first, not just on that campus, but any campus.
“We just spent 60 minutes speaking in our language,” Sylliboy wrote. “How beautiful is that?”
Sylliboy’s supervisor. Dr. Janine Metallic, has spent countless hours in other dissertation discussions, but she had the same sense of wonder when she switched languages — an immediate sense that speaking Mi’kmaq changed everything.
“John and I were talking and all of a sudden, we just… the way we express things is different,” she said. “And there’s no need for explanation. We just kind of have this mutual understanding, and then we can get to the job of doing our work, you know, and our research.”
The offhand tweet was, in fact, a sign of happy longer-term news that most Canadians don’t know, and a clue to how they can try to repair the damage from Canada’s devastating attempted cultural erasures.
Many Indigenous languages have begun a rebound in recent years, a process painstakingly nurtured within Indigenous families and schools across the country. Statistics show how successful these efforts have been.
But what hasn’t happened yet, at least not much, is bringing those languages out of those small Indigenous communities and into broader Canadian public spaces, whether at universities or libraries, on TV or street signs.
What difference would it make? A huge one, said Metallic, and she increasingly understands why.
“It just opens the imagination,” she said.
A RARE PAIRING
Cases like Metallic and Sylliboy’s are still extremely unusual, with neither of them aware of any other Mi’kmaq-speaking PhD student and supervisor at any university.
They both now work within McGill’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education, but they come from First Nations two provinces and nine hours apart.
Sylliboy is originally from Eskasoni, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (in Mi’kmaq, Cape Breton is called Unama’ki), while Metallic is from Listuguj, in Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, which got its name from the Mi’kmaq word “Gespegeoag.”
Both grew up speaking Mi’kmaq at home. But that doesn’t mean it was always easy to carry that fluency through to adulthood or to a career, says Sylliboy, who is 51.
“In the classroom, we had to speak English,” he said, recalling starting school at the Indian Day School at Eskasoni in the 1970s.
The students learned Irish sea shanties in class -- but many kids in Eskasoni were fluent in Mi’kmaq and spoke it on the playground.
When Sylliboy’s family moved to Millbrook First Nation, a smaller community not far from Halifax, he was lucky that he was 12 and had spent so much time immersed.
His youngest three siblings, he said, lost the ability to speak Mi’kmaq, though they understand it.
Sylliboy was a good student and went to a school in Lennoxville, Quebec for his last year of high school, then continued to CEGEP, right as the Oka Crisis began. An aunt in Quebec warned him to be careful.
“She said to me, ‘John, just be careful how you go around telling everybody you're Indigenous,’” he recalled.
Sylliboy learned both French and Spanish, moved to Latin America for about 15 years, and came back with such rusty Mi’kmaq that his mom took action.
“My mother said to me, ‘All right, move back into the house, you're going to have to live here to get your things back in order,’” she said.
When he applied to do his PhD, Sylliboy had hoped to get an Indigenous supervisor, and he knew it might be Metallic—but he didn’t know if she spoke the language.
“I wasn’t sure, right?” he said. “I felt, I had hoped.”
When they first started communicating, by email, they used only English, they said. But then they met in person in fall 2018.
“She started speaking out to me [in Mi’kmaq], and it just blew me away,” he said.
Metallic had also done all her schooling in English and French, attending French immersion in New Brunswick.
But her parents also made sure she maintained her Mi’kmaq fluency. She has always liked being multilingual, she said, but speaking her own language at work came as a relief.
“Getting off of our online meeting yesterday… I thought, ‘I wish all interactions could be like this,’” she said this week. “I wish they could all be so easy.”
LANGUAGES REBOUNDING THROUGH SHEER WILL
In fact, after huge effort and some controversial decisions, many Indigenous languages in Canada are rebounding, a damaged link between generations starting to mend.
In Nunavik, Quebec, for example, 99.2 per cent of people report being able to carry on a conversation in Inuktut, according to Statistics Canada.
It’s the highest share of any Inuit region in the country (in Nunavut it’s 89 per cent, and lower elsewhere in the north). Many Nunavik kids also report speaking the language more easily than their parents.
One key move was when Nunavik’s school system, which came into being in the late 1970s, decided to give children only Inuktut schooling until Grade 3, giving some the chance to learn the language when their parents didn’t speak it at home.
Mi’kmaq is a much more fragile language, with fewer speakers, just under 9,000 in total, according to the 2016 census.
But Sylliboy said a similar dynamic is happening. His youngest siblings, who don’t speak the language themselves, now have their own young children who have learned at school to sing, count and respond to basic questions in Mi’kmaq.
“They’re able to put phrases in Mi’kmaq together,” he said.
There are plans for a bigger immersion program in Millbrook, he said.
Across Canada, the biggest language groups like Cree and Ojibwe are the most secure, while smaller groups, including Kanien'kéha, or Mohawk language, spoken in the Montreal area, are still more tenuous—only 2,350 people in 2016 reported being able to speak Kanien'kéha.
But learning and practicing a language outside the home appears to be key to the entire revitalization effort, and not just for children.
The overall number of Indigenous-language speakers in Canada increased 8 per cent from 2006 to 2016. And over that decade, the share of people who learned those languages as a second language also grew, from 18 to 26 per cent.
It isn’t, the statistics suggest, because there are easy chances to practice, but instead through determination.
In Nunavut, for example, which has a very high fluency rate, 74 per cent of people speak Inuktut at home, StatsCan said. But only 27.9 per cent get the chance to speak it at work.
‘I CAN’T DO THAT IN ENGLISH’
If both Sylliboy and Metallic are fluent in English, French and Mi’kmaq, some might ask, what does it matter which of the three they choose to speak?
“I remember having experiences where professors would say, ‘What do you mean by that? Make it more explicit—why can’t you?’” said Metallic.
“And I just was often at a loss for words to explain what it really was.”
So much meaning is embedded in language that some concepts and bigger assumptions just don’t translate, no matter how hard you try to isolate and explain a certain word, she said.
Many Indigenous-languages speakers have said that’s especially true for them, with their languages reflecting completely different cultures and history than, for example, English versus French.
Working in other languages, “I would find myself getting easily frustrated,” Metallic said. “But I also felt it was important to explain those things.”
For example, Sylliboy has said he wanted to use the concept of “two-eyed seeing” in his PhD work.
That’s the English translation of Mi’kmaq phrase, etuaptmumk, that conveys a complex idea of being able to see something simultaneously from two perspectives—such as an Indigenous worldview and a Western one—without trying to reconcile or diminish either.
It can be part of a research methodology, but it’s also “a way of being and knowing… it transcends only being a methodology,” Sylliboy said.
Metallic didn’t need that explanation. But she remembered what happened when she used the same phrase as a grad student.
“I had a professor say, ‘Well, doesn’t everyone see with two eyes?’” she remembered.
“I can look back and laugh at it, but at the time, it was kind of…hurtful to me, because I thought, okay, it’s not just that,” she said.
“How do I explain this entire worldview, concept, framework, you know, theory, perspective, how do I encapsulate all of that?” she said.
Again, in Mi’kmaq, there was a word that would help explain. “But I can't do that in English. In English, it would take me 10 pages, it would have to be in APA style, and I would have to have references, be peer reviewed, and so on and so forth.”
Now, with Sylliboy, using the word is “like having a tool or a piece of equipment at your disposal… and you don't have to refer to the owner's manual.”
WANT TO HELP? LEARN SOME NEW WORDS
For universities wanting to help foster the language revival on campus, some starting points are pretty easy, Sylliboy says.
Ask the local first nations what would help, he suggested. Consider bringing coursework to them, which, for McGill, would be “just across the river.”
Create programs that offer a clear “pathway” where Indigenous students can envision themselves all the way to graduation, he said.
But one of the best ways to clear the way for fluent PhD students and faculty, Metallic says, has nothing to do with campus.
“I think one suggestion would be to create opportunities to see and hear Indigenous languages, like, everywhere,” she said.
“Imagine if we could see those local languages depicted on signs and in public locations and street names, and imagine hearing them on TV, on radio, on digital media, you know,” she said.
“Imagine if we turn on CTV Montreal, and they said, ‘We're going to have a segment here about, or maybe even in, the local language,’ what would that look like? Imagine the reaction to that.”
One thing almost all Canadians have in common, she says, is that they’re not living on their own territory, including many Indigenous people.
“Even now, living here [in Montreal], I realized that I'm not in my traditional territory,” she said.
“So on Saturday morning, I am up and I'm learning Kanien'kéha," at language classes, "because it's something that I feel is important in order to respect the local Indigenous peoples.”
It also came in handy right away when she began working with a grad student from one of the nearby Kanien'kéhaka (Mohawk) communities.
“When she sends me an email or she sends me an article or something, she can write words in her language, and I know what they mean,” Metallic said, or at least she knows there's no direct translation.
“There's this type of like holistic phrasing that's involved, you know—one word can mean so much.”
At least one recent attempt to bring Indigenous words into a Canadian public space sparked a fight.
This summer, the Nova Scotia government decided to gret people crossing the bridge from mainland Nova Scotia with a new sign saying “Pjila’si Unama’ki” instead of “Welcome to Cape Breton.” Some locals responded with a flood of hateful comments online.
But Metallic said that really, not much stands in the way of a big, big shift in thinking.
“We have to open up our imaginations to different scenarios now because it's like, why not?” she said.
“Now, there's there's nothing to stop it from happening… maybe the political context is not conducive to that right now.
“But that can change, you know?”