Like many indigenous people in Canada, Brandi Morin did not grow up speaking the language of her ancestors – the result of decades of government policies meant to strip the country’s aboriginal people of their identity.
Those policies mean that although nearly 2 million people in Canada identify as indigenous, only 263,000 can speak an indigenous language. Community leaders and government officials have attempted to fight the decline, allowing indigenous languages in parliament and proposing funding boostsfor language education.
But ordinary people are also joining in the fight, using apps, immersion programs – and even fashion – to rekindle interest in the languages.
“Everything about us as human beings is connected, at the core, to our language and the way that we express ourselves,” said Morin. “It’s how we share our history, our present and our future.”
Morin’s contribution to Canada’s “indigenous renaissance” is a clothing line producing garments emblazoned with Cree and Mohawk words and phrases. The company’s name – Mixed Blood Apparel – refers to her Métis heritage: an ethnic group in Canada that shares lineage with both European and indigenous ancestors.
Morin is not alone in her quest to promote indigenous design: each year, Toronto hosts Indigenous Fashion Week and Morin recently attended Otahpiaaki Fashion Week in Montreal, alongside 35 designers and artists. “Indigenous peoples always created, traded and worked hard. We are innovative, we have knowledge to share, we have gifts that we could impact the world with,” she said.
Not all indigenous languages are disappearing: some, such as Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibwe, are thriving – but others are kept alive by a handful of speakers.
“There are so many urban indigenous people who’ve been cut off from community – and language is a way they’re finding to express themselves,” said Deanna Reder, chair of First Nations studies at Simon Fraser University. “Language is a key part of having government, authorities – even general society – recognize us.”
There are still many barriers to a renaissance in indigenous tongues, including chronic funding shortfalls, but Reder said there is value in – and intense appetite for – small acts such as Morin’s that rekindle interest and discussion in the languages. “The new generation want change now – and they’re right not to be patient.”
For Morin, it was the death of her grandmother which spurred her interest in learning Cree and Mohawk.
Moments before she passed away from cancer, her kohkum (grandmother) switched from English to Cree, a language she had not spoken since she was sent to one of the country’s notorious residential schools, where staff gave attendees Christian names and banned indigenous languages.
But as Morin’s grandmother lay in hospital, “it came back to her in a wave – she started speaking blessings over each of her children in Cree,” she said.
After her kohkum’s death, Morin found pages of handwritten stories describing the joys of time spent in the woods with family. Those words inspired her designs, which use lines of gentle cursive to decorate clothing.
Morin says her designs have given her the chance to reclaim existing narratives about indigenous experiences – and to pay tribute to elders like her grandmother.
“She had a really rough life. And she had a lot of dreams and hopes that didn’t come to pass,” said Morin. “This is a way to honour those dreams in this generation.”