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Celebrating & Exploring Indigenous Languages Through Literature

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Indigenous languages are an important aspect of daily life in Canada. Many provinces, town and city names, landmarks, and bodies of water are identified by words in Indigenous languages. Cities such as Toronto (Tkaronto) or Ottawa (Odawa) are named using Indigenous languages. Meaning behind these words needs to be celebrated and explored in a respectful manner. Through literature and connecting with Indigenous communities, Indigenous languages can be supported and honoured in the classroom.

The year 2019 was designated the “International Year of indigenous languages (#IYIL2019)” by the United Nations in an effort to acknowledge and raise awareness of Indigenous languages worldwide. Indigenous languages “foster and promote unique local cultures, customs, and values which have endured for thousands of years.” In addition, “Indigenous languages add to the rich tapestry of global cultural diversity. Without them, the world would be a poorer place.”

According to the United Nations statement “Celebrating IYIL2019 will help promote and protect indigenous languages and improve the lives of those who speak them.“ It will also support the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Canada adopted the declaration in 2016.

In Canada, there are over 60 different Indigenous languages spoken. Cree, Inuktitut, and Ojibwe languages have the most speakers, while the majority of the languages would be considered endangered. All of the Indigenous languages in Canada have a reduced importance in the home, school, and workplace as a result of the official languages designation (promoting English and French) as well as historic injustices with regard to treaties and residential schools.

Support the International Year of Indigenous languages by introducing your students and children to the rich linguistic culture of Canada. Promote Indigenous language learning in the classroom, through literacy resources. Connect with local Indigenous communities to understand which language(s) are spoken on the land closest to your school or home.

While making curriculum connections, learning words in the Indigenous language promotes awareness of local communities. It also provides an entry point to discuss truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada. Promoting Indigenous languages supports student achievement, self-esteem, and well-being.

The following are rich literary texts that are offered bilingually (English and in the Indigenous language) for different age groups that would enhance student understanding of the Indigenous languages of Canada. These books are a sample of the languages spoken in Canada. While promoting language use, many of the books approach topics of the residential schools. As Indigenous languages were not allowed to be spoken at the schools, the dual language versions offered here provide a starting point for conversation into this part of Canada’s history.


When We Were Alone, written by David A. Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett, is a selection I have used when working with primary classes to begin to talk about the issues of residential schools in Canada. I like using this book because it can introduce students to the Cree language and offers a perspective of strength and determination.


When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden, she begins to notice things about her grandmother that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long braided hair and wear beautifully coloured clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where everything was taken away. When We Were Alone is a story about a difficult time in history and, ultimately, a story of empowerment and strength.


Unikkaat Natirnamiinngaaqtut / Tales from the Tundra, written by Ibi Kaslik and illustrated by Anthony Brennan, would be a wonderful addition to the literacy program for junior classes. The book offers students the opportunity to learn Inuit stories that could be incorporated in the social studies program.


Learn why the raven is black or how a little boy was transformed into a bird. Find out why a walrus used to have antlers and how an earth spirit pulled the first caribou from the ground. These fascinating stories will capture the imagination of young readers and introduce them to the rich mythology of the Canadian Inuit.

Gaawin Gindaaswin Ndaawsii / I Am Not a Number (written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland, and translated by Geraldine McLeod & Muriel Sawyer) is a selection that I have incorporated into my literacy program in grade 8. I used the book to introduce students to issues in Canada’s past that affected Indigenous people. I liked the book as a support for the History program. The dual language edition would allow students the opportunity to be introduced to the Nishnaabemwin (Ojibwe) language.  


The dual language edition, in Nishnaabemwin (Ojibwe) Nbisiing dialect and English, of the award-winning I Am Not a Number. When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her. When she goes home for summer holidays, Irene's parents decide never to send her and her brothers away again. But where will they hide? And what will happen when her parents disobey the law? Based on the life of co-author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ grandmother, I Am Not a Number is a hugely necessary book that brings a terrible part of Canada’s history to light in a way that children can learn from and relate to.

See more Indigenous language books



Ian McCallum is an Education Officer for the Ministry of Education. He has worked in the field of Indigenous education for more than twenty years in the capacity of classroom and resource teacher.

Ian is a member of the Munsee-Delaware First Nation. He works with his community promoting culture, history, and the Munsee language.

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September 10, 2019
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