Aboriginal languages now included in graduate work

Pjila’si means "welcome" in the Míkmawísimk language spoken by the Mi’kmaq First Nation and now, thanks to an innovation by York University, many of the 50 Aboriginal languages spoken in Canada may be included in graduate work.

York University has become the first postsecondary institution in Canada to officially sanction graduate thesis work in a language other than English and French.  

Starting this fall, graduate students at York can complete and defend a major paper, project, thesis or dissertation in the language of a First Nations people in North America. To access this option, interested students must first receive confirmation from the director of the graduate program concerned that relevant supervision and sufficient support can be provided. 

Initially proposed by York’s Graduate Program in Environmental Studies, the change in the Faculty of Graduate Studies regulation on language was approved by the Committee on Curriculum & Academic Standards of the Senate of York University on April 16 and reported to Senate on April 24. 

The successful amendment to the language requirement for graduate studies follows years of discussion and research by Faculty of Environmental Studies Dean Barbara Rahder and Anders Sandberg, associate dean and professor of environmental studies, among others. 

Left: Barbara Rahder

"Several years ago, when I was the graduate program director for the Faculty of Environmental Studies Graduate Program, I was approached by two graduate students who wanted to write their theses in their native language [Míkmawísimk]," said Rahder. "They were both passionate and articulate about the importance of Aboriginal languages and wanted to create a path for future students to follow."

Rahder discussed the students’ proposal with the associate dean of the day, Mora Campbell, who was supportive. In the ensuing months, Rahder held discussions on the topic with interested students and faculty members until it was clear that there would be considerable support for the initiative.

At the same time, Rahder embarked on a quest to ascertain if there were any other precedents set by universities in North America for Aboriginal languages. She discovered that Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and St. Mary’s University in Halifax had limited provisions for undergraduate and master’s level work; however Rahder was unable to find any formal precedents in Canada. She then surveyed other academics to see if they were aware of similar options and could not find any particularly helpful examples. She asked Sandberg for assistance. 

Right: Anders Sandberg

Rahder and Sandberg had to develop a mechanism for appointing an outside level supervisor for the master’s level students interested in completing their work in French or a First Nations language. They also had to consider the conundrum of the PhD dissertation and the requirement for a doctoral candidate to defend their work before a panel of expert examiners appointed by the University. “I have always hated the concept of defending a thesis,” said Rahder. “Really it is more like a group of people having a very meaningful conversation where key questions are asked and it is a mutual learning experience. 

“How could we create that same environment in a dissertation defence where there would be provisions for speakers and non-speakers that would allow people to ask questions in either language?” asked Rahder. It was decided that providing interpretation services for key concepts may be applicable in some cases. In others, the defence could occur in both English and a First Nations language. While individual situations might vary, Rahder said it is important to adhere to the principle that some First Nations knowledge and concepts cannot be interpreted or translated, and that respect for the integrity and heritage behind ancient knowledge, culture and customs is key.

There are 50 languages spoken by Canada’s First Nations peoples that belong to 11 major language families. A survey completed for the most recent Atlas of Canada map published in 1996 shows that many of these languages are in danger of extinction. The map illustrates that while some languages are strong and viable, others are small and vulnerable to extinction. The three largest families represent 93 per cent of people with an Aboriginal mother tongue and include the Algonquin, Inuktitut and Athapaskan languages. The other eight account for the remaining seven per cent. The Tlingit language spoken in the northwestern part of British Columbia and the southern Yukon is spoken by just 175 individuals. (Source: Natural Resources of Canada.) 

“The Faculty of Environmental Studies thought it was very important to create a way for people to work in their language,” said Rahder. “I surveyed other scholars in Canada and it sparked an interesting debate on how we could retain the academic integrity of graduate studies.”

In the end, Rahder’s cohort of scholars concluded that North American First Nations’ languages should be included in graduate studies. After several years of discussion to refine the proposal and logistics, her own sabbatical and the arrival of Douglas Peers as York’s dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies from the University of Calgary (which has its own international indigenous studies undergraduate program), the opportunity arose for a formal motion to be presented to York’s Faculty of Graduate Studies Council during their meeting on April 3, 2008.

The proposal, formally presented to the Faculty of Graduate Studies Council by Sandberg and FES Anishnaabe faculty member Robin Cavanagh, was supported by the Aboriginal Education Council at York and the Faculty of Environmental Studies Council. After a lively discussion, the proposal was expanded to include all graduate studies programs at York. Members of the council noted that the proposal had implications for York students studying American Sign Language and that scholars who graduate after accessing the language option could then become facilitators, supervisors and committee members. The motion was moved, seconded and carried and then sent to Senate.

For Rahder, the formal adoption of the motion marks a new era in graduate studies at York University and for many other of the world’s postsecondary institutions. “There are many living languages, cultures and knowledge that are on the brink of extinction,” said Rahder. “This is one way of helping preserve that knowledge.”

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor.