Tuesday 24 February 2015

Heritage Language Day: Promoting and Preserving All Languages

Katharina Ulbrich describes the German class she teaches at the Estevan Library as “fun and funny.” Canadians, for instance, say “on cloud 9,” but in German, the equivalent of that happy expression is “on cloud 7,” says Ulbrich.

I met Katharina while travelling the province during Culture Days in 2013. The seven partner organizations involved in the Stories of Integration Project -- Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Organization for Heritage Languages, Saskatchewan German Council,  Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative, Ukrainian Canadian Congress - Saskatchewan Provincial Council, Conseil Culturel Fransaskois, and Aboriginal Friendship Centres of Saskatchewan -- asked people to share their stories for a series of public service announcements.

Katharina wasn’t the only one who spoke about language. Berbel Knoll’s parents immigrated to Tisdale after WWII from Germany. Berbel’s mother worked in a Chinese restaurant, where the owners only spoke Chinese and Berbel’s mother only spoke German. As a result, they relied on their hands to communicate. One day, Berbel’s mother had gotten frostbite on her face. One of the owners of the restaurant ran outside, gathered some snow and put it on her cheek. Somehow, Berbel’s mother had managed to communicate that she had frostbite, and the owner knew exactly how to treat it.

Berbel’s parents fostered an appreciation for German in their children and eventually, Berbel became a German teacher at Luther College.

Every year since 2000, International Mother Language Day is celebrated on Feb. 21, making this year the 15th anniversary. The day promotes the preservation and protection of all languages all over the world.

Photo by Maria Aman
Since 2002, the Saskatchewan Organization for Heritage Languages has held celebrations in recognition of Heritage Language Day. This year’s event was a wonderful success with about 300 people in attendance. Dignitaries who were present included Senator Pana Merchant, Honourable Ralph Goodale, MLA Warren Steinley, Mayor Michael Fougere, SaskCulture Director Renu Kapoor, SOHL Director Nishchal Prasad, and MLAR President Jim Leskun. 

The celebration was a day of multicultural performances, including powwow singing and dancing, Irish dancing, Bengali singing and dancing, Hindi singing, a Chinese Lion Dance, a Nepali dance, and a performance by a local spoken word artist.

Natya Sudha Dance Group, photo by Maria Aman
The people we interviewed for the Stories of Integration project told us that it’s important to them to be able to preserve their cultural traditions and language. Recent data indicates a rise in Filipino, Urdu, Mandarin and Hindi new immigrants settling in Saskatchewan.

According to the United Nations: “More than 50 percent of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world are likely to die out within a few generations, and 96 percent of these languages are spoken by a mere 4 per cent of the world's population. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given pride of place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world.”

Statistics from the 2011 Saskatchewan National Household Survey reveal that only 24.3 percent of all self-identified Indigenous people indicate having an Indigenous language as one of their mother tongues. 

According to UNESCO: “All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”

Saturday 14 February 2015

Stories of Integration: Remembering Michele Sereda

Integration is when two or more things, people or groups come together to create something new. When we speak of cultural integration, we’re referring to cultures coming together to form a multicultural society, in which each culture is equally respected, celebrated and encouraged to retain its unique characteristics, customs, values and features.

This past week, a dear friend, Michele Sereda, passed away in a tragic fatal car accident just north of Regina. Well known to the arts community in Saskatchewan and beyond, Michele was someone who loved to learn about, learn from, and integrate with cultures that differed from her own ethno-cultural background.

I remember Michele telling me about an evening Spanish language class that she had been taking. Her excitement for learning a new language was evident in her animated gestures and facial expressions as she talked about the prospect of being able to communicate with a new friend who spoke Spanish. Shortly after Michele enrolled in the course, she traveled to Europe, and asked that I stay at her house to care for her cat, Bruno. As I moved about the house, I discovered random sticky notes posted to objects. There was a sticky note on a plant, the bathroom mirror, the telephone… On each sticky note, she had written the word for the object in Spanish: planta, espejo, telĂ©fono.

Michele had a profound admiration and respect for Indigenous peoples and cultures. She used to say, “Anyone can go out to the reserve. You don’t need an invitation.” I took this to mean that if you cared about bridging Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures, it was up to non-Indigenous people to involve themselves in Indigenous ways of living, to learn about Indigenous traditions and values, and to visit with Indigenous peoples wherever they are.

Photo by Ann Verrall
When Michele tragically passed away, she and three of her colleagues, who also lost their lives in the car accident, Lacy Morin-Desjarlais, Michael Green and Narcisse Blood, were on their way to Piapot First Nation. Michele had been working with Piapot students for five years as part of a drama program called Spirit of the Story and was active at the school in other ways for more than a decade. Global reported that Chief Ira Lavalee “described Sereda as an adoptive family member in their community,” saying that Michele “opened that door, that it is ok to talk about our ceremonies, our own creation stories, our own unique cultural diversity.”

Michele was a wonderful example of someone who practiced cultural integration and demonstrated genuine curiosity and appreciation for diverse cultures, especially the cultures of Canada’s first peoples.

In honour of Michele, we welcome you to share your story of integration in the comments below, or on Twitter, using the hashtag: #WeAreSK. And we offer our sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in the fatal car accident outside Regina on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 10.