It’s late July. Our short and splendid Canadian summer is at its height; I have not been home in Montreal for nearly a month and won’t be for nearly another. As I write this, the car ferry called the Chi-Cheemaun (“big canoe” in Ojibway) is taking me from Manitoulin (“of the Great Spirit”) Island, at the top of Lake Huron, to Tobermory, ON (a transplanted place name from Scotland). My sister and I are driving back east in the general direction of Toronto, for her, and Montreal, for me, from a family reunion in southern Manitoba.
Last weekend thirty-five or so of us, all descended from (or conjugally linked to a descendant of) Nicholas and Irene Pankiw, my Ukrainian-L1 grandparents, congregated at the farm they homesteaded in the 1920s and that their son’s children, my Pankiw cousins, still farm. My uncle, gone these five years and much missed, used to tell me the name meant “Lord”. He grew up speaking Ukrainian at home and English (or, in this very Franco-Manitoban corner of southeastern Manitoba, quite often French, willy-nilly) outside. In 1955 he married a young Mennonite woman, my beloved, still active and energetic 81-year-old aunt, who had grown up in another corner of Manitoba speaking a dialect of Low German in her home.
When we visited the farm from our Toronto home as small children, we heard a lot of Ukrainian. My grandfather insisted that it remain the main language of their home well into my cousins’ childhood. But he died in 1967, my grandmother a few years later. Many Ukrainian and Mennonite foods and traditions and words for things and relationships are still hanging on there, and strong; however, the languages spoken in the homes of our elders, two generations ago, have given way to English. And quite a bit of French; one of my cousins married a Franco-Manitoban who was schooled in French in Saint-Boniface, Winnipeg’s French quarter.
Since the Official Languages Act in 1969 and the overturning of provincial legislation that effectively prevented the use of French as a language of instruction after the 1890s, French is very strongly supported in Manitoba by public funds. Through sheer bloodymindedness on the part of several generations of Franco-Manitobans and Manitoba Métis, somehow French survived nearly a century of being relegated to homes and back rooms. But public funds were what enabled French to come out of the kitchens and become a living community language again. Ukrainian and Low German have not had that advantage. It shows.
Aboriginal languages in Canada have also not had that advantage, beyond the lip service to programs and tiny dribbles of local funding that have enabled a succession of federal and provincial officials to assume self-congratulatory stances as they pose for photo ops while shaking hands with community leaders. The Mi’gmaq revitalization project about which I have written here before, absorbing and engaging as it is, has not succeeded in bringing Mi’gmaq back as a living community language among people younger than 60 or so in Listuguj First Nation, despite our collective and continuing best efforts. English and French are so clearly so much more useful economically. It’s hard enough to get kids interested in school subjects that you can show them are useful, let alone subjects they can see so easily aren’t. Language maintenance and revitalization activists, whether in Indigenous or immigrant contexts, know they may be fighting a losing battle. So do the non-Indigenous or non-immigrant academically-based researchers who fight along with them. In my case, the struggle takes the form of helping a few brave and determined Mi’gmaq language teachers get funding for their programs, when I have my researcher hat on. When I have my family hat on, I can’t do much more than listen to people’s stories and wonder, what could it have been like if the English-French socio-politico-linguistic struggle had not muscled meaningful financial support for all other languages out of Canada’s public space?
But one thing has become clear to me over the past few months of planning for this family reunion while also going back and forth to Listuguj and to the academic conferences that have been in full spate since late March. Namely: the fact of my belonging, even if at one remove, in the context of a rural Ukrainian-Mennonite-English-French farming family in the Canadian West, is a key part of what makes this particular non-Indigenous researcher able to connect with a very different non-urban community in a very different part of Canada. And for that, I am grateful.