Repatriating the "Mother Tongue": Should Quebec, Wales, Scotland, and the United States be speaking Hebrew?

"In the beginning was the Word..." (John 1:1)

In 2021, more than 750 unmarked graves were found on the grounds of a Canadian boarding school which had been a residential educational facility for Native children. (1) CNN news interviewed Bobby Cameron, a member of the Witchekan Lake First Nation (in northern Saskatchewan) and Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. Cameron noted, "The world is watching as we unearth the findings of genocide. We had concentration camps here, we had them here in Canada, in Saskatchewan. They were called Indian residential schools. Canada will be known as a nation which tried to exterminate the First Nations, now we have evidence." (2)

This discovery came after the remains of another 215 children were found in late May of the same year, buried near another boarding school in Canada and as the nation grappled with its dark history involving Indigenous people. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the findings at both former boarding schools "reaffirm the truth" that families, survivors and Indigenous communities "have long known," and the government will continue to provide funding and resources to bring "these terrible wrongs to light." (3)

What is especially notable (and tragic) about these recent news reports of newly discovered Indigenous persons deaths is they follow earlier efforts by the Canadian government to address the history of ill-treatment of the Indigenous population. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, was initially implemented in 2007. (4) One of the elements of the agreement was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada to address grievances of the former Indigenous students, their families, their communities with the surrounding Canadian population. Between 2007 and 2015, the Canadian government provided about $72 million to support the TRC's work. The TRC traveled across the country and heard from more than 6,500 witnesses. It also hosted seven conferences to educate the Canadian public about the history and legacy of the Indigenous residential schools system. The Commission then authored a document discussing the residential schools system based upon over 5 million records, which are now publicly available at the University of Manitoba. In December 2015, the TRC released its entire six-volume final report. (5)

Obviously, the more recent findings described at the opening of this paper indicate that the earlier effort to fully document the repression of Canada's Indigenous population was not adequate. One of the means by which the current Canadian Government intends to "right this wrong" is to energize efforts to re-establish the spoken languages of its Indigenous peoples, including those Canadians who are First Nations/First Peoples, Metis and Inuit. When the British began colonizing Canada in 1763, there were several different indigenous peoples (tribes) residing in Canada, speaking over seventy different languages. In 1876, the Canadian Parliament passed the Indian Act, which (among other items) forbade the use of these languages and required Native youths to be sent to special Residential Schools, where they would be instructed in English. (6) At present, there are 1,807,250 indigenous-descended persons in Canada; the most common indigenous language still spoken is Algonquin, followed by Cree. (7) Most of the other original languages have been lost over time or are presently used by only a few hundred persons, mostly over the age of fifty. (8) The Canadian Government has allocated $4.1 million to help reintroduce the predominant remaining languages to indigenous Canadians. (9) A story in the Washington Post provides additional insight regarding the attitude of present-day Indigenous Canadians on the significance of reinstating the use of their languages, stating that "Isaiah Omeasoo studied and made himself fluent in Cree. His wife is expecting a baby in February... and he will speak to his son or daughter in their language... It's not going to skip another generation." (10)

What are the explicit and implicit rationales at work here? First, these narratives frame Indigenous languages as a both a product and possession of the people who once spoke it. The language is central to their culture. As some of the Indigenous people commented, their world-view is best explained in their own language. Other languages may not have the vocabulary or nuances of meaning required to fully convey the meaning of the native speakers.

A second implication is that a shared mother tongue is a means for binding people in the community together; it creates a sense of commonality with other members and also acts to exclude persons who are non-speakers from the community. Native language is both a fence that keeps the community together, protecting its identity, and a barrier that excludes non-speakers from participating. By requiring indigenous peoples to learn only English, British Canada intended to not only forcibly absorb them into British culture, but also prevent them from maintaining their identities as Indigenous.

Turning Now to French Quebec

The French entry into what was to ultimately become British Canada in 1607 was small and somewhat haphazard. (11) The first French visitors to Quebec in 1534 were fur traders and fishermen who lived in temporary dwellings on the eastern coast. Notably, these French colonists, although sanctioned by the French government, acted primarily as extensions of Huguenot coastal trading organizations headquartered in Brest, Rochelle, Caen, Lille and Calais, France. (12)

Most of these initial Quebec entrepreneurs were Protestant-Huguenot in religion, although several would later claim to be Roman Catholic, once the Edict of Nantes (discussed below) was rescinded. (13) For several decades in the early 1500s, the Roman Catholic religion dominated France; however by 1550, Protestant Reformers became increasingly numerous and economically powerful, causing the French King Henry IV to acknowledge their value to the realm. Thus in 1598, the Edict of Nantes was signed guaranteeing Protestants "the enjoyment of their civil and religious rights." (14) The greater freedom of mobility encouraged Protestant French merchants to make additional efforts to establish trading sites on the North American shoreline above the area claimed by Spain.

Henry Baird's (1885) historical documents indicate that the Protestant Huguenot population residing in France was primarily located in seaports along the Western coast--in particular La Rochelle, Rouen and Dieppe. From these cities, the Huguenots controlled the major share of the French economy, acting as merchants, transoceanic shippers, bankers, and entrepreneurs. These French Huguenot traders were often multi-lingual, e.g., speaking English, Spanish, Dutch, and German, and had business contacts in these same countries. As Baird notes, the fact that the Huguenots were the economic drivers of France placed them under the King's protection and insulated them from overt attacks by the Roman Catholic clergy. (15)

In 1599, a Huguenot merchant named Pierre Chauvin (whose surname variously became Chafin, Chaffin, Cauvin and Calvin) was tasked by French King Henry IV to "colonize America." Concurrent with the French exploration and trading posts established along what became the coast of Quebec and Maine, the British were also expanding their colonization efforts north of Massachusetts Bay. As Baird reports, "In 1621, British King James I... made over to one of his subjects, Sir William Alexander--afterward Earl of Stirling--the whole area east of the St. Croix River and south of the Saint Lawrence... The grant included all of the French colony of Acadia and was to be known as Nova Scotia." (16)

This was happy news to the many Huguenots who had already emigrated to England and Scotland and desired to help the English cause. Some of these new arrivals included David, Louis, and Thomas Kirk who had fled to England from Dieppe. Baird further points out that the British were also well aware that several of the 'Catholic' Acadians were in fact Huguenot Protestants, including surnames Alain, Barillot, Blanchard, Bobin, Boisseau, Briand, Cadet, Chauvet, Celemnceau, D'Ambroise, D'Amours, Dugast, Gourdeau, LaTour, Landry, LaPeriere, Morin, Petipas, Robichon, Robin, Roy, and Sibilleau. (17)

In France the political situation grew more threatening for Huguenots. The Roman Catholic Church was gaining favor with the French monarchy and by the late 1650s to early 1660s, Protestants were fleeing France for England and Holland and their American colonies. Finally in 1685, the Edict of Nantes, which had given the Huguenots in France their civil and religious freedoms, was fully revoked by Louis IV.

The Canadian land on which the French Huguenots settled changed hands repeatedly between France and Britain over the next forty years. Depending on the time period, the French settlers were treated well or badly by both their French and/or English overlords. (18) In 1663, Louis IX took control of the French colony and enticed many new French settlers there based on promises of good farm land and religious freedom. As many of these colonists were originally unmarried French soldiers, the king also sent over 850 unwed women who were under the care of the state, known as les filles du roi. These newly formed families were promised 300 pounds a year if they had ten children and 400 pounds a year if they had twelve children! (19) This resulted in a highly in-bred population over the next several decades, since few new settlers arrived, and the children had to find marriage partners. This, the number of different surnames in Quebec is small, relative to the overall size of the French Canadian population.

By 1689, the French population in Canada was 10,700 persons; by contrast, the population of the British North...

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