In recent days, I had the opportunity to meet members of the Toronto Gaelic Learners Association. It was nice to see that there are people in Toronto interested in maintaining the languages and the traditions of their ancestors from Scotland. But what causes me more impact during our conversation, was to learn that the language they are trying to preserve, was the third most spoken language at the time of Canadian confederation in 1867. I have been researching about languages in Canada and still, I discover that I know very little about its history.
Since the beginning, modern Canada was built on immigration. Millions of newcomers have settled in Canada starting with immigrants from France and England. According to the 2016 Census, the most common ancestries reported in Canada are English, Scottish, French and Irish. Precisely, their countries, the UK, France and Ireland are the places where Celtic cultures and languages have their origin. An important group of speakers of Celtic languages have come to settle in Canada. By the mid-1800’s, Canadians of Irish and Scots descent outnumbered English and French.
Today, there are 6 living Celtic languages divided in 2 groups: The Goidelic languages and the Brittonic languages. Languages like Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx are Goidelic languages while Welsh, Breton and Cornish are Brittonic.
The Celtic language that had the biggest impact on Canada’s history and culture was Scottish Gaelic. The first speakers of this language came to Canada in 1773. In the mid-19th century, Scottish Gaelic was the third most spoken language in Canada after English and French. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Scottish Gaelic speakers settled in Cape Breton and 3 eastern counties of Nova Scotia, and in some areas of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Ontario. Gaelic was the mother tongue of the first Prime Minister Sir John A Macdonald. It is believed that more than 200.000 Canadians had had this language as their first language.
In Windsor Scottish, we can read about the history of Scottish Gaelic in Canada. We can read about a proposed bill in 1890 for the use of Gaelic in Official Proceedings, which finally was not approved.
After 1850, the population of Scottish Gaelic speakers in Canada started to decline. It is believed that the reason was that this language was never made official. But we cannot deny the fact that the community of Gaelic speakers integrated to Canadian society mainly in places where English was the language of prestige; Parents started to see English as the language of Prosperity and gradually English became the language of school and home, leaving less space to the use of their ancestral language. Other reasons can be mention such as the lack of institutional support and the decline of the use of the language in Scotland itself. Today, the only area in Canada where Gaelic Speakers can be found in large numbers is Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. In the east coast of this province, it is possible to find bilingual road signs in English and in Gaelic. There are more than 1250 speakers living in the Area. According to the Canada census 2016, there are 1545 Native speakers of Scottish Gaelic living in Canada, 240 of them live in Nova Scotia. Most of the Native speakers live in Ontario (630 according to statistic Canada).
In 2006, Nova Scotia government created the Office of Gaelic Affairs. The role of this office includes the promotion of Gaelic language and culture, including creating learning materials, train language teachers and provide translation services.
There are schools in many provinces (like Ontario, Prince Edward Island) where they offer weekly classes of Gaelic. There are universities that offer full programs in Gaelic language and literature. Celtic festivals are organized in different parts of the country, where it is possible to listen to songs in Gaelic. In Cape Breton, a big festival called Celtic colours is organized to celebrate the Scottish Celtic culture.
Irish was widely spoken in the east of the province of Newfoundland in the later 19th century. It is known that Canada had the most active Gaeltacht outside of Ireland. According to Udaras the term Gaeltacht denotes “those areas in Ireland where the Irish language is, or was until the recent past, the main spoken language of a substantial number of the local population”.
Newfoundland is the only place outside Europe that has a name in the Irish language, and is Talamh an Éisc that means “Place of the fish”.
When the descendants of the Irish immigrants started to move to other Canadian provinces, the use of Irish language started to decline and by the mid 20th century there were no more places where Irish was spoken. Most of the Irish immigrants who come to Canada are English speakers. In 2007, the first official Gaeltacht was opened outside Ireland, and the chosen place was Tamworth/Erinsville, Ontario (Canada). This place works as a place of gathering for people who want to keep alive the Irish traditions and language. There are no Irish native speakers living permanently in the area.
According to Statistic Canada, there are around 875 native Irish speakers in Canada which appear as Celtic. Most of them live in Ontario (365).
Welsh is the other language that survived in Canada into late the 20th century. According to the website of Wales, Welshmen arrived in Canada at the beginning of the 17th century. According to the Canadian encyclopedia the Cariboo gold rush in BC in 1862 attracted a second wave of immigration and then there was another one at the beginning of the 20th century, this last came from Argentina. It is known that Canada and Argentina have the only permanent welsh communities outside the UK. In the case of Canada, remains a settlement in Ponoka in Alberta, and in Bangor in Saskatchewan, although in both cases the number of native speakers is less than 100.
According to Canada Census 2016, there are 1290 Native speakers of Welsh in Canada, the majority of them live in Ontario (530 native speakers); There are 325 in British Columbia and 205 in Alberta.
Most major Cities in Canada have a St. David’s society and a Welsh choir. It is common to see those places hosting “eisteddfodau” the famous Welsh festivals where music and poetry are celebrated. There is a church in Toronto where there are services in Welsh and welsh classes
The Breton language is spoken in France mainly. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, there is a small community of speakers of this language living in Montreal. There are no reports about activities in Canada to promote the use of this language.
Cornish and Manx languages has been used mostly locally. It is possible that Canada has received immigrants who speak those languages but there are no clear reports about how many and how did they use their language. It is most likely that in case they were spoken in Canada, they were used in their homes or small social circles.
This article was written in Memory of my friend Mathew James Scott Chisholm, who recently passed away. He was an Esperantist, a member of the Gaelic Society of Toronto and he dedicated himself to learn and promote the Scottish Gaelic Language. He will be missed!
RIP my Friend!