Chief Darlene Bernard gave a powerful speech this afternoon to start the last day of the 20th annual Lennox Island First Nation mawi’omi (or pow wow). I wish I had a copy of her speech to share here, but the one theme that jumped out at me was her assertion that the Mi’kmaq language must become more widely used on Prince Edward Island if it is to survive.
Chief Bernard’s request to “splash Mi’kmaq all over Epekwitk” wasn’t just a direction to her people but to all Epekwitnewaq (residents of Epekwitk), including non-indigenous settlers like me. I suppose since non-indigenous people are the majority population on PEI, her direction was especially for us.
So, if you are a settler on Indigenous land, please consider learning and using a few words in the language of the first peoples of your region. If you own a business here on Prince Edward Island/Epekwitk, perhaps you could find a way to add Mi’kmaq to your signage or website.
If you are a PEI government official, it is time that the Mi’kmaq language is used more widely across PEI and not just in token, select settings. The Mi’kmaq people don’t have the power to change signage and usage, but you do.
It’s not difficult to start using Mi’kmaq. When we reopened our Prince County Hospital Auxiliary gift shop in the hospital lobby in June 2020 after closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was asked to make some signs for the shop, including one to thank our customers. I asked if it could be in three languages – English, French and Mi’kmaq – and the other volunteers said that was fine, so this is what we installed:
At first a couple of people thought wela’lin was Chinese for thank you, and that’s understandable because this is all new. At least a few more people have seen and learned the Mi’kmaq word for thank you. Maybe it has made a few people think about why they are only seeing this word for the first time now when it should really have been everywhere forever.
This language learning is probably going to feel awkward to start. Chief Bernard said that we need to be kind to each other as we learn, that we will make mistakes, and that’s ok. The important thing is to try, and the awkwardness will eventually pass.
When elder Junior Peter-Paul gave a blessing in Mi’kmaq today, the only words I knew were wela’lin and wela’lioq (used to thank more than one person). He used them many times to thank the Creator. I know that saying wela’lioq to the Mi’kmaq people isn’t nearly enough, but it is a small start, and things can only get better from here.
Wela’lin. Thank you.