By Simona Rosenfield
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
There’s change afoot at the Kanesatake Health Center (KHC). With the rollout of their new mandate to promote mental health services within the community, KHC is starting this work with their own staff.
“Investing in reclaiming our identity and revitalizing what has been so brutally attacked by colonization – our language, our culture – I think that it’s a great path towards community well-being,” said Teiawenhniserahte Jeremy Tomlinson, executive director at the KHC. “Part of doing that is, as an employer, promoting the learning and use of Kanien’keha in the workplace.”
He is talking about KHC’s recent partnership with the Tsi Ronterihwanonhnha ne Kanien’keha Language and Culture Center, where KHC employees who wish to enrol in the language-immersion program will be supported in their studies.
Since the partnership began in September, two employees have been sponsored by KHC to study full time at the language school. The initiative follows on the heels of a callout for applications at the health centre to fill a variety of roles.
“Already, we invested in rendering our Learn and Play, Head Start program as an immersion program, kind of a language-nest approach,” Tomlinson said. “And now we have two Child and Family Support (CFS) staff going through Ronterihwanonhnha, and once they graduate, they’ll be able to come back and we’ll be able to have a more immersive language experience in more of our youth programming.”
This is one component of a greater goal at KHC. “This is in hopes of eventually including more language in our service delivery, primarily right now, in terms of youth animation, our primary line of prevention services,” Tomlinson continued.
To this end, KHC is offering weekly language classes with Wenhnitiio Will Gareau to all staff, in order to help advance these efforts efficiently. Tomlinson sees these initiatives as contributing to a holistic approach to healthcare by pairing modern medicine with traditional knowledge to advance community wellbeing.
“I’m a firm believer that a lot of social issues that we see in our communities are stemmed directly from the result of colonization and residential schools,” said Tomlinson. “Once you reconnect to what you’ve lost, it can fill that void and I think it can help yield great results in terms of community wellbeing.”
Partnerships like these are crucial in the success of language strengthening efforts across the territory. “It takes a community to keep the language alive,” said Hilda Nicholas, director at the language and cultural centre.
In light of the recent loss of two beloved elders and speakers, Jane Kanatenhawe Etienne and Donald Otsitsakenra Gabriel, the importance and urgency of these efforts are further crystallized.
“I know what it’s like when you depend on a speaker and it’s not there anymore,” said Nicholas. “You feel empty because you can’t reach that person to speak with.”
Students who graduate from the immersion program are in high demand, as the need for speakers to provide services in the language grows. Nicholas has noticed this growth across various fields. She hopes this partnership is just the beginning, with many more to come.
“I think in the future, there’ll be more people on board working with us,” said Nicholas.
“I’m extremely happy with having more people join our journey to revitalizing our language. I’m very appreciative of the health centre, Jeremy, the support,” she continued. “I think together we are stronger, and that is what the community needs.”
Tomlinson considers this initiative as much a mental health service as professional training. “How can we at the health centre, in delivering health and social services, also have a part in reclaiming our identity and our culture and our language? Because I think that’s an important part of who we are and achieving wellbeing,” he said.
This understanding comes from experience, as Tomlinson himself has felt the positive impacts of studying Kanien’keha in his personal and professional life.
“Through my learning journey, it helped me a lot, in my mental health healing journey as well. So, it was important to me to try to integrate that as part of a holistic approach to delivering health and social services,” he said. “And my plan is to continue that process as cohorts continue to go through Ronterihwanonhnha. I want to send employees through the program.”
“We kind of talk often about language revitalization,”
Tomlinson said. “At the end of the day, we have to realize that it’s each and every one of our responsibilities to ensure it happens.”
Simona Rosenfield is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE EASTERN DOOR. The LJI program is federally funded. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.