This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

Spring 2024

More than words

How Indigenous children are reclaiming their languages through immersion school

Caelan Beard

A language learning school has bright bubbles of speech coming from it, each a different colour

Art by Valerie Thai

Robin had been ready to start school for a year. On the first day, she was prepared, wearing a blue dress with pink hearts and carrying a giant backpack that tugged at her mother’s heart.

Robin’s parents both came to drop her off. As they left, they waved goodbye to their oldest child and called out: “Ona!” Goodbye in Mohawk. Robin wasn’t starting at just any elementary school. She was starting at a Mohawk language immersion school, or more specifically, the Language Nest program, Totáhne, run by Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na (TTO), the Language and Cultural Centre in Tyendinaga.

“It was a really good feeling,” Robin’s mom, Alyssa Bardy, says, smiling when she remembers that morning. “To drop her off, and say hello and greet the teachers in Mohawk.”

TTO was established in 2000, by a group of community members concerned with the revitalization of the Mohawk language in Tyendinaga. The name means keeping the words alive. Their services include a Mohawk immersion elementary school and an adult learning program. For the youngest community members, there’s the nursery program, or Language Nest, which includes language learning, culture-based learning, and lots of outdoor play.

Bardy is Upper Cayuga of Six Nations and mixed settler. She belongs to Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte (she’s also my cousin—we’re related through our Dutch-Canadian mothers). She and her husband, Markus, decided to send Robin to the TTO because “it’s kind of a way that we can take back the parts of our culture that were taken away from us,” Bardy says. “On my dad’s side, we have family members who did attend residential school. Specifically we have stories in our family in which, at the residential schools, children were punished physically for speaking the language.”

That’s the fire that motivates her, Bardy says, in terms of putting her daughter into Mohawk language immersion school today. “It’s kind of a way to show honour to those people before us, who had a language, which is a key element to culture, taken away… It’s like an act of reclamation.” It’s particularly special because Robin is the first generation in Bardy’s family that’s been able to immerse herself in it. “To me, there’s nothing more important than being able to take [the language] back,” Bardy says.

Bardy’s watched her daughter thrive in the new school, absorbing words and bringing them home for the rest of the family to learn. Alyssa and Markus are planning to keep her in Mohawk language immersion. But currently, the TTO only offers up to Grade 4. After that, Robin will have to switch to a different school. There’s currently no school near the family that offers Mohawk language immersion from kindergarten to Grade 12. For Robin’s family, and for other Indigenous families reclaiming what’s theirs, this causes a very real concern: if their children have to leave immersion school, will they retain the language they’ve learned up to that point—or lose it?


Over the past couple of decades, many Indigenous groups have been pushing hard for language preservation. Grassroots movements have tried to match the demand from parents and communities for schools that offer language programming. There have been tremendous successes, such as the creation of community led, non-profit organizations across Ontario, like TTO. In Six Nations, Kawenní:io/Gawení:yo Private School (KGPS) recently received their high school accreditation—it’s the only school in Canada that offers Cayuga and Mohawk languages from kindergarten to Grade 12. Some communities have found strength in collaboration, like the First Nations with Schools Collective, a group of eight First Nations in Ontario who work together with the aim of achieving “full control of our lifelong-learning education systems, including schools on reserve.”

Data from Statistics Canada shows that for the 2021-2022 school year (the most recent year for which data is available), there were 59,355 students in Indigenous language programs in public elementary and secondary schools in Canada. An additional 8,238 students were in Indigenous language immersion programs. These numbers do not include private schools. However, whether public or private, nearly all of these schools face challenges, including a lack of first-language speakers, space and funding, and curriculum resources.

“If you want to run an immersion school, you have to be ready to take on a number of things,” says Neil Debassige, an education expert from M’Chigeeng First Nation. He joins the Zoom call smiling, with a long beard, baseball cap, and glasses, sitting in a wood-panelled room. He’s spent his career in First Nations education systems, including as a kindergarten student in one of the earliest immersion programs, and later as a teacher and principal at that same school, Lakeview Elementary School. He ran an immersion program there which he describes as “relatively successful.”

When looking at how education systems are developed, and what they need to be successful, Debassige says they really need to answer four key questions:

1.) Are we clear in what our learners need to know and demonstrate in order to meet our sovereign definition of success?

2.) Are we clear in how students are going to demonstrate their learning?

3.) Are we clear in their response when they don’t learn it?

4.) Are we clear in how the community privileges education?

But even when these questions can be answered, Debassige says, immersion schools are a contentious issue in many communities. “It’s not because people don’t think it’s important,” he says, but because “this colonized process of this system that we’re in, it operates on a divide-and-conquer approach. So if communities can be divided in terms of what they think is important in their education system, it’s easier to defeat them.”

Debassige talks about deprivation theory, how people have been conditioned through dependency and the idea that there’s not enough to go around. When grassroots language programs emerge, they might be seen as competition to mainstream schools on reserves. He says those schools, which follow the Ontario curriculum and receive government funding, are severely underfunded, “but at least it’s some first-level funding.”

Starting an immersion school, Debassige says, means taking on the challenge of being underresourced, and fighting for financial support. While schools on reserve (which may offer Indigenous language programming) can receive government funding, immersion schools, similar to private schools, may not be eligible for the same amount. Their funding can come from a variety of sources, including government grants, community fundraising, or other organizations. The TTO, for example, has received funding through the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI), the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte band council (MBQ), and through the province’s Ontario Trillium Commission.

Yet numerous studies show that students who are exposed to a language in an immersive way will exhibit higher levels of fluency. “If you want to get good at something fast, you need to be immersed,” Debassige says. “That makes perfect sense.” But he says it can be a hard choice for parents to decide to put a child in a grassroots language school, especially a newly founded one. If it’s an immersion school, Debassige says, and parents know that they’re underfunded, they have to consider whether they’re willing to risk the chances of their child not having access to equal sports opportunities, special education, and more.

Debassige says he’d rather describe the schools as bilingual or trilingual. The connotations of bilingual programs and students are more positive. Even so, there’s a level of uncertainty with these programs. “We’re not sure if they’re going to work,” Debassige says.

Today, Debassige runs a couple of tourism businesses, including captaining a chartered boat to take people fishing, renting cottages, and co-hosting a TV show that’s produced on the reserve and airs nationally. These are his passions, but he’s still involved in education work through his own consulting business. They do school evaluations, appraisals of principals, and capacity development. It’s obvious that he cares deeply about language schools, but it’s also obvious that the work comes with a great deal of challenge. I ask what keeps him in it, and he softens a little.

“I have a stake in it,” he says. “I’m a parent. I have two daughters.” One goes to McMaster University, and the other is in Grade 12. “We wanted them to be the kids that were the top Ojibwe language students and the valedictorian of their class, and they were that every year,” he says. Proudly, he tells me that when she graduated, his daughter was the first ever Indigenous valedictorian at her provincial high school. “They were proof that it could be done.”

Debassige says the same is possible for every First Nation kid, if they’re dealt a better hand. “You know, if the system supports that, then I think we can get to fluency and I think—we can do literacy in our language, and be literate in English as well at the end of Grade 8. I honestly think that.”


Cyndie Wemigwans is a fluent Nishnaabemwin speaker from Dooganing (South Bay) Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. She’s had a varied career: she worked as a chef and as a mechanic before accepting a job as an interpreter at Rainbow District School Board. Recognizing a need for first-language teachers, the board encouraged her to become a certified teacher, and she went through Nipissing University to get her Teacher of Indigenous Language as A Second Language certificate. Now, she’s a teacher at the Wiikwemkoong Board of Education.

Wemigwans teaches her students with Nishnaabemwin immersion, speaking to them about 40 percent in Nishnaabemwin and 60 percent in English at the start of the school year, and shifting toward 80 percent Nishnaabemwin and 20 percent English by the end. She notices a difference between the way she teaches compared to second-language teachers in the school. “I find a lot of teachers are afraid— they’re teaching the curriculum, but they want to infuse the Nishnaabemwin in with the curriculum, but they’re kind of lost on how to go about it.”

Conversely, it can also be tricky for first-language speakers who don’t have teaching experience to teach the language. “For them it’s a little bit difficult, like how to teach the kids, the language itself…It’s hard to find people that have both experience in a school setting and the language.”

In her first year teaching, just before Christmas break, Wemigwans remembers putting her students to the test, asking them to build sentences out of everything they’d learned up to that point. They aced it. Watching them converse in Nishnaabemwin, Wemigwans says, “I had tears coming down. I’ve given them that sentence structure, how to figure out what’s animate, inanimate, the endings… and they understood it. They didn’t have to really think so hard because they understood it.”

Wemigwans says that for her, passing her language on to generations to come is important because “that’s who we are.” She has three kids, including a seven-year-old daughter who is fluent in Nishnaabemwin. “How I explain that to my little one is, when I move on from this world to the next world, if you’re speaking English… I’m not going to understand you,” Wemigwans says. “It’s important that my children speak the language, so that I can still communicate with them.”

Bardy says that the schools play such an important role not only for children, but also for their families. Last January, the Bardys went to a Midwinter Ceremony, a social celebration hosted by Robin’s school to celebrate the beginning of midwinter, an important time of year in the Haudenosaunee calendar. When they got there, Robin and one of her school friends saw each other from across the longhouse. Her friend greeted Robin with her Mohawk name, and the two ran to each other and embraced. The interaction happened completely in Mohawk.

“It was so cool,” Bardy says, “to see that was the first way she was acknowledged, by her Mohawk name, and how Robin responded to that. So inspiring.” Bardy says it’s hard to say at this age how the language might be benefitting her daughter, but “there’s definitely a confidence there.”

“She’s not a shy girl, she’s not afraid to correct us if we say something wrong, or if we say something in English and she feels like it should be said in Mohawk,” Bardy says. “I think it’s instilling a sense of pride in who she is, as maybe a potential language speaker.”

Bardy says the schools play a vital role in reconnecting families to their language and parts of their culture. She worries about Robin losing what she’s learned after immersion school. “We’re going to have to dig deep as a family and do the work to sustain it, and surround ourselves with people who know the languages, and make sure we have everything in place, all the resources that we can possibly have.”

“My biggest fear about that is that we don’t make it a habit of our daily life,” Bardy says, “And it slips away from us.” Though some schools, like Robin’s, currently only offer immersion for younger grades, this could change in the future as First Nations communities, families, parents, and schools continue working to expand. Expansion could include everything from offering more grade levels to expanding their resources and programming. Some parents are just trying to get an immersion school near them.

“We need immersion schools in our communities,” says Tracy Cleland. Cleland is from Wiikwemkoong, Ontario. She’s passionate about the Ojibwe language and was involved in a language nest nearby, Nawewin Gamik, that was started by local elders. Nawewin Gamik ran for about four years, Cleland says, and during that time they had well over 300 attendees, in addition to seven kids and their parents who were there every day. It was forced to close last year due to a lack of funding. Though there are schools that offer a lot of language classes, “it’s not a hundred percent immersion,” Cleland says. “If there was [an Ojibwe school] built in Toronto or something, I literally would move there just to get it. That’s how important I feel it is,” Cleland says. “I’m so close to moving to Wisconsin cause they do have one.” She stresses the importance of dedicated funding for creating immersion schools. “And not just short-term funding—you can’t get things done in a year or six months.”

Part of Debassige’s consulting work with the First Nations with Schools Collective has included developing a new funding formula. They’re trying to negotiate with the federal government to advocate for better access to quality programming. By lobbying for more provincial and federal money, Indigenous language immersion schools could continue doing their work and expand to serve more children. Some schools have also had success at community fundraising, but this can be hard to sustain long term. In the meantime, communities and families are left to find ways to teach their language to the next generations.


Testimony from Indigenous communities and a growing body of research speaks to the benefits of learning ancestral languages. Language experts say that maintaining Indigenous languages in early childhood helps to preserve culture and identity. Losing the language impacts an entire community’s well-being.

For Bardy, having her daughter learn Mohawk is about something much bigger. “Aside from knowing the language itself, I want [Robin] to know how the language ties into who she is as a Onkwehón:we,” Bardy says. Onkwehón:we translates to original people. Languages can also be a way to share knowledge systems and to shape people’s worldview and relationships with the land. “One word in Mohawk can be like a sentence in English,” Bardy says. “So I want her to have an appreciation of how descriptive and flowery and beautiful the language is, and how it ties into our place in the natural world and here on earth and as Onkwehón:we and as caretakers of the land.”

Robin is now in her second year in the Totáhne. Last autumn, her younger brother also started at the Language Nest, learning more of the Mohawk language along with his sister. He already had a handful of words when he started, thanks to Robin bringing them home.

Their experience with the immersion school so far has been incredible, Bardy says, and she’s really grateful to have that resource in their community. “Watching your child thrive and flourish in the language, it gives me so much pride,” she says. “When you go outside or you’re looking at a book, and your daughter tells you the name of something in Mohawk, it’s a really special moment.”

“Those bits of culture that were taken away—to me, that reclamation is one of the number one priorities in raising my kids. The schools are an extension of how families and Onkwehón:we can take back what was taken away so many years ago.”

Editor’s note: Robin’s name has been changed to protect her privacy 


Want more information about Indigenous language education? Here are some places you can start:

First Nations with Schools Collective

Kingston Indigenous Languages Nest

Six Nations Language Commission

Woodland Cultural Centre

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