The ability to speak fluent Kanien’kéha has always been an object of yearning and deep fascination for Kahawinóntie Cheryl Diabo.
From listening to her raksótha and tóta bicker in the language when she was just a child, to today joining her grandmother and Kanien’kéha-speaking friends for a chatty card game at the Turtle Bay Elders’ Lodge, Diabo’s love for her native tongue has persisted through her entire life.
In a chapter of the book “The Charter: Bill 101 and English-Speaking Quebec,” Diabo explores nation-to-nation relationships both from her standpoint as a Kahnawa’kehró:non woman, and through insight from different community voices.
“I wanted this chapter to be from a community perspective, rather than a personal one,” expressed the first-time author.
“While the (chapter’s) title is Nation-to-Nation Relationship, our people have really always been a family. But in the English language they say nation, so in order to maintain our nationhood status, we obviously have to use English terminology as well.”
Diabo spent three years assembling the work, which tackles key historical moments that have unequivocally shaped the future of languages in Quebec and the many Onkwehón:we communities on these lands.
She opens the chapter with an account of how family and community members still proudly share stories from the fall of 1978 when 300 students walked out of an English-language high school (Howard S. Billings) in Chateauguay in response to the Charter of the French Language (better known as Bill 101) adoption on August 26, 1977.
“When they started the first language immersion school in Kahnawake, it was put together without any real long-term planning, since it was really a response to Bill 101,” said Diabo.
With the community in charge of the curriculum for the Kahnawake Survival School founded in 1978, came the implementation of the Kanien’kéha immersion program in 1984.
Inspired by the curriculum designed for Kahnawake youth, emerged the Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats Adult Immersion Program which began welcoming students in 2002.
As Diabo explains in the book, limited space availability and strict criteria make admission to the program competitive.
It took the author three attempts before finally being accepted into the full-time program where she “lived and breathed” in Kanien’kéha for two years.
In the chapter, she recounts crying for an entire summer after receiving her first rejection letter; the tears turning to anger, then action, following the second deceiving letter came in.
“Our people shouldn’t have to be in that situation – in fact, nobody should be in a situation where they are begging to know or speak their own language,” said Diabo. “What I wanted to highlight in this chapter was that it’s not fair for Onkwehón:we or anybody to struggle speaking with their own language.”
While processing the harrowing work involved with obtaining Kanien’kéha language teaching, Diabo evokes that in response to the Indigenous Languages Act, adequate resources must be provided to broaden this access for Indigenous Peoples.
Moreover, she called on the provincial government to recognize and give appropriate accreditation for the adult immersion program.
Throughout the pages filled with personal anecdotes and commentaries, passages from historical documents, and quotes from Kahnawa’kehró:non, including elders and members of the Longhouse, Diabo ties every word back to the conversation on nation-to-nation relationship.
“What I learned from observation of my elders growing up in the Longhouse is that good relationship management is what creates a healthy society,” writes Diabo in a section where she challenges the concept of what is and isn’t good for society.
Based on a 2017 conference entitled “Bill 101 at 40,” most of the book’s chapters are proceedings from the conference. However, as English-language history specialist and editor of the book Lorraine O’Donnell explained, Diabo provides a crucial approach that was absent at the event.
“When we decided to make a book based on some of the presentations, we observed certain gaps and one of them was Indigenous language – which is important in itself, but also really in the public eye with the passage of the Indigenous Languages Act,” noted O’Donnell.
“My hope is that people will receive what Cheryl (Diabo) says openly and as an opportunity to expand understanding and increase dialogue,” she added.
To facilitate meaningful conversations between nations, Diabo provides suggestions for tangible solutions to address the different key issues she highlights.
Government institutions communicating in at least one Indigenous language, adding Onkwehón:we language to street signage and appropriate consultation with the treaty peoples of Turtle Island, are all strategies Diabo proposes for the establishment of proper nation-to-nation relationships.
In addition to the author stating the importance of Canada upholding and enforcing its responsibilities entrenched in the Two Row Wampum Peace Treaty, she also calls for irreversible cultural funding programs for projects aimed at Onkwehón:we “as a restorative resolution to the cultural genocide that was committed,” wrote Diabo.
“I did this (work) to help people understand what is happening in Quebec because I don’t want it to be hidden or forgotten,” said the author. “The work is to make people see through the perspective of one of the original people’s of this continent.”
With the continued conversations taking place around the French language, Diabo underlines how Indigenous Peoples are once again leading with strength and resilience as they continue to extend a hand in return of the recognition and respect Onkwehón:we language and culture is owed.
“They first and foremost need to recognize that we are a nation and not ‘Canada’s Aboriginals,’” noted Diabo. “We got hurt and we’re still hurt, but we’re trying to preserve what we have and we’re still asking to maintain that nation-to-nation relationship because it’s the original process that took place with our people – we’re the ones who set that example here.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door