This story is a collaboration between Concordia University’s journalism department, Kahnawake Survival School and CBC Montreal.
Since he started teaching in 1972, Tewenhni’tátshon Louis Delisle, 71, hasn’t missed a single year.
A talented lacrosse player as a young man — even being inducted into the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2014 — Delisle originally dreamt of being a gym teacher.
Problem was, the only position in Kahnawà:ke, the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community, south of Montreal, was already taken.
“Me being in my late teens and the gym teacher being like 22, 23, I realized he probably wasn’t gonna quit soon,” he said.
In the meantime, Delisle went into general education and started teaching English at the elementary school level in Kahnawà:ke.
But later, he found his calling teaching Kanien’kéha (Mohawk language) at Kahnawake Survival School, which has been the primary focus of his career ever since.
Like many people his age, Delisle learned the language as a child from his family.
“I would think more than half the town spoke Kanien’kéha because in many houses, that was all you heard,” he said.
“Gradually it got less and less and less until today, it’s very minimal in just a few houses.”
Kanien’kéha is the language of the Kanien’kehá:ka nation. The 2016 census from Statistics Canada found that about 2,350 people in Canada were able to speak it — about half of those as a first language.
Delisle says although the language is used less now, there’s been a movement to revitalize it.
In his seven decades of life, he has watched the language change and fewer people speak it, but has also seen it become easier to learn with different programs and a willingness to teach it in schools — something he helped spearhead in his community.
Now, every school in Kahnawà:ke provides Kanien’kéha courses for students, with a number of schools offering full immersion programs. Delisle has helped hundreds of children and adults learn the language, giving them opportunities to learn about their culture.
Delisle would like to see even more opportunities for language learning in school, but he doesn’t think there will ever be enough time in an academic year. He says his ancestors had more exposure to the language in their lives.
“Before the Europeans came, the kids were in the longhouse with their families. They heard the language 14 hours a day from 10 people around,” he said. After doing the math, he said that worked out to over 5,000 hours of hearing the language in a year.
“We have 125 hours in a school year,” Delisle said.
‘Language and culture go hand-in-hand’
Delisle believes that to learn the language you need to use it at home with your friends and to form contacts with elders who speak it.
He says it’s important to use the language at the store or in restaurants, as those are the best ways to keep it alive.
Looking back, Delisle says the highlight of his career has been seeing some of his students become co-workers.
Teioronhiáthe Phillips is a Grade 11 Kahnawake Survival School student. He looks up to Delisle and wants to become a language teacher like him.
Kanien’kéha is his third language after English and Oneida. When his family moved back to Kahnawà:ke after living in Oneida, near London, Ont., for several years, he started learning Kanien’kéha in immersion school.
“I went there for Grade 5 and 6 and I wanted to learn as much as the people that were in my classes. And I said, ‘well, that’ll be my goal,'” he said.
He agrees with Delisle that the biggest difference today compared to his ancestors is the lack of first language speakers using Kanien’kéha every day.
Teioronhiáthe also strives to keep both language and culture alive.
“It’s important to keep our language alive because language and culture go hand-in-hand and you can’t have one without the other,” he said.
Delisle says the language is in a better place than it was a few decades ago because of the hard work of elders and others who wanted to share their knowledge.
He says it’s challenging to teach the language, but it helps that students keep an open mind to learn, as it is a part of who they are.
“You could say the language is getting weaker, but we’re getting more opportunities to make it stronger.”