Following in the moccasin tracks of her grandmothers

Wolastoqewi speaker, teacher, and activist comments on Nova Scotia’s new First Nation language legislation, and what it means for New Brunswick

NEW BRUNSWICK – The issue of indigenous language loss is so important globally that the United Nations declared 2023 to 2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. In the Maritimes, a Nova Scotia media release stated, “Legislation introduced today, April 7, recognizes Mi’kmaw as Nova Scotia’s first language and will support efforts to preserve and promote it now and for future generations.

“The Mi’kmaw Language Act commits the province to working closely with Mi’kmaw communities and organizations such as Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey to develop a language revitalization strategy,” the statement continues.

In New Brunswick, Wolsastoqewi speaker, teacher and language activist, Imelda Perley, calls the announcement “amazing news.

“There is,” Perley says, “so much signage in Mi’kmaw, so much happening in Nova Scotia; they are so far ahead,” she says in an interview. “New Brunswick is not as receptive as Nova Scotia.”

Perley’s web biography at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), where she worked as advisor and teacher, describes her as “Wolastoqew (Maliseet) from Tobique First Nation, St. Mary’s First Nation, and Houlton Band of Maliseets (United States).”

Perley recognizes a lot of hard work and effort by individuals, organizations, and First Nations in this province, and says there is progress in signage and programming in the area of Indigenous languages in N.B. However, Perley is aware, “We do not yet have the legislative power and push that our languages need, so we do it on our own.” As far as a concerted effort by the government, Perley says, “We’re not doing so well over here.

“We want people to know the truth,” Perley says. “Like what Nova Scotia is doing. That there are two languages that the settlers brought.” Perley would like it acknowledged that First Nation languages have been here since the beginning. In an email she writes in New Brunswick, “Three languages are desperately seeking attention for survival; Wolastoqey/Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, and Peskotomuhkati.”

Perley has been working in the field of language education for most of her career and experienced frustration teaching in an official bilingual (French and English) province. At a secondary school where she taught, she remembers, “My colleagues teaching French would be complaining about their old computers. I’d say, ‘give them to me! I’ll take them.’ Without legislation to protect us, we had nothing; no budget.”

Another issue she found in the mid-1990s was First Nation language was grouped under the social studies department rather than the language department, added to which students had to choose between taking French or taking a First Nation language course.

“I had to go house to house and almost beg my parents to let their students take the course, to foster pride, because, well, they didn’t see how they would get jobs. French would get them jobs,” Perley explains. After three years she “tearfully” left the position, because she could not support what she calls tokenism.

For Perley, the penny dropped some time ago as to why First Nation students in particular had to choose between taking French or their own language. “French and English are working together for economic purposes.

“I get it,” she says, “you don’t want us to take those jobs.”

While New Brunswick’s legislation for Indigenous language preservation and promotion has not kept pace with Nova Scotia, Perley is encouraged by actions of First Nations, some businesses, and institutions. “Places like UNB and St. Thomas are putting some signage. They’re changing names like Ludlow Hall,” Perley says, referring to UNB stripping Ludlow Hall of its name due to George Duncan Ludlow’s views on residential schools and slavery.

Perley adds Beaverbrook Art Gallery plans to incorporate Indigenous language signage into its renovations. She also mentioned work she has done with the Delta Fredericton Hotel, including signage for a medicine wheel garden.

In the efforts to preserve First Nation languages, Perley is working on an upcoming documentary, language apps, and websites. She has sat and sits on numerous committees, and has taught Maliseet language and Wabanaki worldview courses at New Brunswick and Maine universities. She served as elder-in-residence at UNB and is presently elder-in-residence at Chief Harold Sappier Memorial Elementary School in St. Mary’s.

“I am also cultural advisor for all Wolastoqey community health initiatives,” says Perley. She is involved with many projects for children, including performing naming ceremonies, knowing many of her generation were given English names by nuns. “I’m following in the moccasin tracks of my grandmothers,” she says.

But for all Perley does, she knows that in New Brunswick, the protective legislation now in Nova Scotia is missing.

“I want that premier [of Nova Scotia],” Perley says, “to come talk to our premier in New Brunswick to teach him how to follow in his footsteps.”