06/05/2017 11:06 EDT | Updated 06/05/2017 11:06 EDT

Learning My Immigrant Mother's Native Language Became My Mission

In the dead of winter, 1957, 90 years into confederation, my mother immigrated to Canada from Belgium.

She had left school at 12 years of age to take care of her invalid mother. By 14 she was working outside the home full-time in a shoe factory. At 21 she was married, on a ship on her way to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

She didn't know one word of English, but she didn't consider that a hardship. She worked hard to learn to read and write. I recall her telling me how diligently she studied for her Canadian Citizenship hearing. In 1964 she obtained her citizenship card.

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I asked her why she didn't teach me her native tongue.

"I didn't want to confuse you."

It saddened me to think no one told her, first, bilingualism is a plus, not a negative; and second, that cherishing her heritage, teaching her children its tenets would enhance, not hinder, our development and tender souls.

I shared that story with one of my best friends, Ro'nikonkatste, who is Mohawk. He responded thoughtfully: "In the heart of every culture lies the language of the people who express themselves as human beings. To deny them their language or at least validate it, is to deny them their humanity."

Indeed. Poor mother. She had humanity in spades, but felt she had to give up something to obtain "the prize."

I had to educate myself so that I could honour my mother's humanity.

Indigenous wisdom states, "We do not inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children."

I decided to learn my mother's native tongue in my teens, went back to her homeland more than once. I didn't want to, I HAD to. I had to educate myself so that I could honour my mother's humanity.

I informed my mother of every episode along my path of discovery. Her eyes lit up with my stories of cultural awareness. I educated her in many ways. Her humanity became my raison d'être.

As we approach Canada's 150th, and I reflect on all my mother did to earn her citizenship and my journey to appreciate my dual citizenship, you can appreciate how I am taken aback by some of my fellow Canadians' lack of respect for indigenous language.

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(Photo: Frwooar via Getty Images)

I've even heard someone state that the "indigenous population is less than five per cent of Canada's population and their languages have no real, worthwhile place in Canada or the world."

Really? I just love it when an ancestor of an immigrant (anyone who wasn't here first) feels the need to proselytize about, and worse, to our indigenous neighbours. The presumption here is that 95 per cent of Canada's population have the right to nullify any language, period.

Of course, I'm not surprised.

It's Canada 150. Canada's birthday. One hundred and fifty years of one Dominion under the white lady's crown.

Sadly my mother didn't live to see our sesquicentennial. But in her honour, as I'm celebrating and singing "O, Canada," I will sing "our home on native land."


Her legacy lives on in my choices. Instead of "moque" or "No, non, nein, nee" to indigenous language, I will always vote Yes, oui, ja, "e'e" to honouring, celebrating and encouraging more enlightenment on indigenous languages, not less.

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