If Quebec can have a language law, why can’t Kahnawake? That’s what the elders of this Mohawk community said when they called on the band to adopt a law to protect their endangered language.
Just before Christmas, their wish became a reality when the band council passed the Kahnawake Language Law.
There won’t be any of Quebec’s famous “tongue trooper” language police measuring store signs to make sure the wrong language isn’t too prominent. But the new law does require the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake and all other public institutions like the post office, hospital and Hydro-Quebec to provide services and documents in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language.
Band council employees also have a right to work in their own language and have Mohawk employment contracts.
The law declares that the people have a right to free expression in Kanien’kéha, as well as the right to be educated, registered at birth, named, married and receive last rites in the language.
Under the law, also known as Kaianerenhserônrni ne Oknwawenna’6n:we Aôntston ne Kahnawake, the community has two years to make the switch.
Private businesses won’t be forced to adapt Mohawk, but are being encouraged to follow suit anyway.
Kahnawake residents were extensively consulted before the law was adopted on December 20, though outside governments and institutions were not asked for their opinion. No outside elements have voiced an response since the law was adopted, according to Timmy Norton, band council spokesman.
“So far, the only reaction has been from within the community, and it’s all been positive. People are happy the Mohawk council is taking a responsible position,” he said.
“It’s not a law where we’re going to be arresting people. It’s more of a spiritual thing to encourage people to learn the language.”
The next step is teaching everyone Mohawk. The language was in danger of disappearing, with only 10 percent of the community still fluent.
The law will probably mean a boom in Kanien’kéha language courses, as residents flock back to the classroom. The band is now looking for funding to offer the needed courses and translate band documents.
At Kahnawake’s post office, assistant postmaster Lynne Diabo, who is Mohawk herself, said she isn’t sure how Canada Post will react to the new law. “At this point, I can’t really comment on that because we’re a federal office,” she said.
“Our clientele are all basically English-speaking young people. Maybe it’s a law, but they don’t speak Mohawk either.”
Diabo said only one part-time employee there, a Mohawk elder, speaks the language fluently. She said she might be willing to learn Mohawk “if they have a class that would meet my needs.”
At Hydro-Quebec’s office in Kahnawake, customer-service and collection agent Lilliane Williams and the other employee in the office are both Mohawks. She said she likes the new law: “I feel it’s fine. I have no objections to it. I feel we should all know the language. I plan to start taking some courses soon.”