This book focuses on language and identity in the context of the colonial policies—specifically, the Indian Residential Schools—that brought about the near destruction of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. This first chapter centres on the first step in the Facing History and Ourselves journey: the relationship between individual identity and the social and cultural elements that shape it. Here we will explore the connections between identity, family, religion, ethnic background, our social environment, and public policies. We will also be looking at how a person’s identity can affect his or her choices, self-esteem, and connection to others. Finally, this chapter examines some of the challenges faced by the three indigenous groups recognized by law,
,and, when it comes to preserving their traditional identity.
The answer to the question “Who am I?” defines our individual identity. But the answer we give is often complex, since we all have more than one identity. We are members of specific communities and ethnicities, we have religious (or non-religious) affiliations, and we speak different languages, so “Who am I?” is tied closely to other questions, including “Who are we?” All of those factors contribute to our complex identity at different times. Moreover, many people think of their identity as something they can create for themselves. Therefore, it is worth considering how much of our identity is the result of our own choices and how much of it is shaped by other factors outside our control. In the Canadian context, two unique factors also need to be considered: the effect of the residential schools, which were designed to reshape indigenous identities in the image of European white men and women, and the legal system, which defined the
Peoples as separate nations with a special relation to the Crown. This was reaffirmed in the 1982
Here we focus on language and its power to impact identity. Language can help create a shared sense of identity and belonging. Indeed, the language we speak often connects us to a shared experience, a shared past, a shared culture. When a language disappears, these bonds can be broken. In other words, when people cannot learn the language of their traditional community, they will find it hard to connect with their ancestors’ religion, culture, and history.
As recorded in 2011, there are more than 60
languages in Canada, which are grouped into 12 distinct language families. Canadian law recognizes only three broadly defined indigenous population groups, so this wide variety of languages is perhaps more revealing of the diversity within the indigenous population. But many of these languages are at risk; some have only a handful of speakers alive. Some are no longer spoken at all. Critics argue that very little is being done to help keep these languages alive.