MEMBERTOU — A teenager from Membertou First Nation is doing his part to keep the Mi'kmaq language alive in his home community.
Noah Matthews-Cremo grew up hearing and speaking Mi'kmaq. Both of his parents spoke the language to him, and until he started school, he thought everyone's parents spoke Mi'kmaq at home.
It wasn't until middle school, where he was taught in English but also had Mi'kmaq as a second language class, that he learned the difference.
“We had a Mi'kmaq pop quiz and the teacher asked if we were ready and I was like, 'Yeah, we're ready,' and then one of my classmates got mad and said, 'That's not fair, you have Mi'kmaq at home, we don't,' and that's when I knew how fortunate I was to have two fluent parents," he said.
According to 2016 data, the most recent information available from Statistics Canada, there were just over 9,000 Indigenous people living in Nova Scotia. Of them, 5,000, or 55 percent were Mi'kmaq language speakers — down from 59 percent a decade earlier. Those numbers represent a decline in both on and off-reserve language speakers.
During the same period, Eskasoni First Nation, the largest Mi'kmaq community in Nova Scotia with a population of 4,000 in 2016, and the community with the largest number of Mi'kmaq speakers saw a slight drop over 10 years from 89 percent in 2006 to 87 percent in 2016.
The number of Mi'kmaq speakers in Membertou First Nation grew from 28 percent in 2006 to 35 percent in 2016.
One way Membertou has been promoting the language is through free classes at Membertou Heritage Park where Jeff Ward is the manager.
Ward said the classes have been happening for years but are just getting going again after being shut down for a year due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Now Matthews-Cremo and 10 or so other Mi'kmaq enthusiasts of all different levels gather twice a week to practice their vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation in a relaxed setting.
Ward, an occasional instructor, speaks Mi'kmaq but not as much as he'd like. When he started school, his mother stopped speaking to him in the language because she didn't want him to have trouble in his English elementary school. He said that came from his mother's own experience in residential school.
"They were taught not to speak their language and sometimes they were (punished) when they spoke it ... and so that's what happened with a lot of our parents, they stopped speaking it around their kids because they wanted them to excel in school, not realizing that if you knew two languages, you'd have a higher IQ," he said.
Ward described his knowledge of the language as being like Swiss cheese — with lots of holes. He said that's common for people like him that have been speaking Mi'kmaq their whole lives but don't have a lot of opportunities to practice, a problem with which Matthews-Cremo also struggles.
"We're on our traditional territory but it's not ours anymore, it's like everything around is English and it's all about European things and it's like we don't have a place here anymore," he said.
Ward has a solution for that problem.
"As soon as Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and Xbox go Mi'kmaq, we'll all be speaking Mi'kmaq by Tuesday of next week," he said.
Ward points to the work by Tom and Carol Anne Johnson, the Eskasoni First Nations couple that dubbed the Dreamworks movie "Chicken Run" into Mi'kmaq and has worked on the History Channel show "Vikings" as language coaches to the actors speaking Mi'kmaq, as an example of how to make Mi'kmaq accessible.
He would like to see an all-Mi'kmaq language radio station and a Mi'kmaq television channel but, in the meantime, he'd like to see the Mi'kmaq classes in Membertou at capacity.
Matthews-Cremo plans to be in attendance as much as he can be and sends out invitations and reminders for the classes to his friends on social media.
He takes every opportunity he can to practice his Mi'kmaq verbal skills, and uses language apps and Mi'kmaq YouTube videos, but said in-person conversations are the best way to learn.
Even though Membertou shows promising numbers of Mi'kmaq speakers, Matthews-Cremo has his eyes on the overall downward trend in Nova Scotia and is doing what he can to encourage his peers to learn the language.
"You should start now while we still have it because it's slipping away from us very quickly and it would be very selfish of us because there are many Indigenous tribes that have (fewer) speakers than Membertou alone,” he said.
“We're so fortunate to have so many speakers in our own community so we should take advantage while we still have them."
Ardelle Reynolds, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cape Breton Post