Marc Miller stood before the House of Commons Thursday and made history by giving a speech entirely in the Mohawk language.
The Montreal-based MP has been learning Kanyen’kéha — the Mohawk language — since January and wanted to make a point about preserving Canada’s indigenous culture.
“Today, for the beginning of Aboriginal History Month, I spoke to the House in Kanyen’kéha, the language of the Mohawk people on whose traditional land my riding is situated,” said Miller, in a statement released Thursday. “It is the result of a personal journey to learn a new language and to raise awareness of indigenous languages in Canada.”
The short speech marked the first time an MP delivered a speech in Kanyen’kéha and it is one of the few times in Canadian history that the language has been spoken in Parliament. In it, Miller pays homage to the Mohawk people and encourages more Canadians to learn about indigenous languages.
Thus far, reaction to Miller’s speech seems mostly positive.
“I applaud his efforts and it’s very respectful,” said Akwiratékha’ Martin, who teaches the language at Kahnawake’s Mohawk immersion school. “I hope that he continue using the language in his job. But most of all, I wish that he help get all (indigenous language) programs funded that are not recognized or funded by his government. I’m sure that he knows now that for us speaking our language is medicine and heals a part of our spirit.”
One of Martin’s students seemed overjoyed about the speech.
“Holy (expletive) you guys see this? He’s actually not that bad,” wrote Mohawk language student Kaniehtiio Horn, in a Facebook post. “He took the time to show respect. Mad props MP dude Marc Miller.”
Others pointed to the powerful symbolism of Miller’s gesture.
“I just shared this with a group of traditional elders here on the (West Coast),” wrote Teka Everstz, on Facebook. “They all had to pick up their jaws from the table… this is historical.”
“It’s an emotional journey for anyone to learn a language. You’re out of your comfort zone, you feel insecure, you feel stupid any time you get something wrong,” said Miller, the Liberal MP for Ville-Marie-Le-Sud-Ouest-Île-des-Soeurs. “In terms of learning Mohawk, it’s extremely intricate, it’s extremely colourful in the way it expresses ideas. The words are super long, sometimes you have a 25-letter word, which is difficult in and of itself.
“What we’ve learned by doing our tour with (Indigenous Affairs Minister) Carolyn Bennett is that the elders are saying that, within a generation, the majority of first languages will be wiped out. It’s an alarm bell.”
Of the roughly 30,000 Mohawks who live in North America, only about 3,000 are fluent speakers of the language.