Wearing her Miss New Brunswick sash, Heaven Solomon enthusiastically introduces herself in Wolastoqey as Heaven or Healing Sunshine.
She fell in love with her language as a child and says she finds a way to incorporate it into everything she does.
Solomon is at the forefront of a movement to revive the threatened Wolastoqey language in New Brunswick, a part of the country that is bucking a worrisome national trend of declining Indigenous speakers.
She is a language teacher at the Mah-Sos kindergarten to Grade 5 school in Neqotkuk, or Tobique First Nation, and hopes to use her new crown to inspire others to learn their Indigenous language, and to use it.
“To be Miss New Brunswick means that I have the opportunity to share my language,” Solomon said.
“It means that I also have the responsibility to hopefully inspire other Indigenous youth to … maybe try things they are not used to, to do things that might make them nervous because I was so nervous for the pageant.”
Solomon is one of a growing number of people in Canada who didn’t grow up speaking their Indigenous language as their mother tongue, but have gone on to learn it as an additional language.
New numbers from Statistics Canada show that the overall number of Indigenous language speakers in the country dropped by about 4 per cent between 2016 and 2021.
In New Brunswick, however, the number increased by 3.5 per cent.
Chris Penney, director of the Centre for Indigenous Statistics and Partnerships with Statistics Canada, says there are about 750 Wolastoqey speakers in New Brunswick, and 2,500 Mi’kmaw speakers.
Penney says in Canada, even though the number of people who speak an Indigenous language as their mother tongue has declined, the effect is being counteracted by more people learning Indigenous languages as an additional language.
“There is growth in the number of Indigenous second-language speakers,” he said of the latest census data.
“The numbers of people who could speak an Indigenous language, but did not have an Indigenous mother tongue, grew by 7 per cent.”
Penney says there has been “broader interest in ensuring that languages are preserved,” which is critical given that many who speak Indigenous languages as their mother tongue are older.
‘It’s important that we wake it up’
Solomon says that’s why sharing her culture and language with a wider audience, through her teaching and by participating in pageants, is so important.
“We’re losing our speakers at a rapid rate,” she said. “Without our language we then in turn will lose our culture, and in turn will lose our connection to the land.”
At pageants, Solomon sings the “People’s Honour Song” in her language and says people have been very “open to hearing it.”
“I’ve actually made a couple of people cry with that, which I wasn’t expecting,” she said. “It’s been a very positive reaction so far, so I’m very thankful for that.”
She has also brought people from her own community to tears when she speaks and sings in Wolastoqey.
“I think that it is an emotional thing — especially for our elders,” she said. “They don’t like to use the term, ‘It’s dying.’ They like to use the term, ‘It’s sleeping.’ So it’s important that we wake it up.”
This content was originally published here.