Nova Scotia Archives

Gaelic Resources | Goireasan Gàidhlig

Gaels in Canada

As a result of voluntary immigration and forced evictions from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland commencing in the 1770s and lasting until into the mid-1800s an estimated 600,000 Gaels were displaced from their ancestral lands.

By the late 19th century, it was estimated by churchmen that 250,000 people spoke Gaelic in Canada. They could be found in many different regions, including Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, the Codroy Valley of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Glengarry County in Ontario, Bruce County in Ontario, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.

Gaelic scholar Jonathan Dembling has stated that in this period "Gaelic was truly a Canadian language", adding that it was the "largest non-official language at the time of Confederation (1867)", that is, only behind English and French in the number of speakers.

Due in large part to the introduction of an Anglo-centric education system since this period, Gaelic language has sharply declined across Canada. Mockery, ridicule and in some instances corporeal punishment in the public schools resulted in the internalization of shame specific to speaking Gaelic (Dunn, Shaw, Kennedy, Newton). This resulted in effectively ending the inter-generational transmission of the language. Language attitudes impacted local economies and a majority of Gaelic speaking parents were led to believe that prospects for their offspring depended on fluency in the English language, causing a sudden and drastic decline in the Gaelic speech community in the 20th century.

Gaels in Nova Scotia

Notwithstanding the educational and economic environments in which Gaels found themselves in 19th and 20th century Canada, in the 21st century, Nova Scotia remains the only Canadian jurisdiction where Gaels and their language and cultural expression have persisted (Shaw, Watson, Newton): having been passed down from generation to generation from the time of the earliest Gaelic speaking settlements.

In 1773, the first group Gaels from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland arrived in Pictou Harbour, Nova Scotia on the ship “Hector”. The Gaelic settlement period spanned approximately 85 years (1773-1855). During this period, it is estimated that 50,000 Gaels settled on the northeastern Nova Scotia mainland and Cape Breton Island.

Gaels settled in eastern Colchester, Pictou, Antigonish, Northern Guysborough, Inverness, Richmond, Victoria and Cape Breton counties.

Gaels settled along family and religious lines in Nova Scotia.

Gaelic, the language of Nova Scotia Gaels has as its origins Scottish Gaelic and is a member of the Goidelic (Gaelic) branch of the Celtic languages. Scottish Gaelic, like Modern Irish and Manx, developed out of Middle Irish, and is descended from Old Irish. Over generations, Gaels in Nova Scotia contributed to the province’s diversity and cultural attractiveness, particularly through language influence, story, song, music, dance and customs.

Since the settlement period, it is estimated that over two dozen Gaelic dialects were introduced into Nova Scotia, 1000s of fiddle and pipe tunes were composed, regional step dance styles, i.e. Mabou, Iona, Glendale, thrived, thousands of songs – some brought over from Scotland and others composed here – were shared, over 300 place names for communities were in currency, thousands of personal nicknames were created and used and between 1791 – 1902, there were one dozen different Gaelic publications initiated.

Local efforts at language preservation and development occurring throughout 20th century Nova Scotia were inhibited due to lack of official recognition, exclusion, ineffective planning and allocation of resources, resulting in further loss of Gaelic language and its cultural expression.

20th Century

In 1920, a petition signed by 5468 individuals from more than 230 communities throughout eastern Nova Scotia was sent to the Nova Scotia legislature requesting that Gaelic be included in the Nova Scotia public schools’ curriculum.

In 1921, the Nova Scotia Legislature approved Gaelic as an optional subject in Nova Scotia’s public schools.

In 1939, the Nova Scotia Assembly called for the enactment of measures to ensure the teaching of Gaelic in Nova Scotia schools and passed a resolution calling for the appointment of a Gaelic teacher at the Normal School, Truro.

1950 a Gaelic advisor position to the provincial Department of Education was created.

In 1957 a Department of Celtic Studies at St.F.X. University in Antigonish was established; courses in Gaelic instruction were offered to full-time students as part of their un-graduated studies.

In 1969, the Gaelic Society of Cape Breton was formed giving wider support to Gaelic retention across rural Cape Breton Island in particular. Native Gaelic speakers from Scotland were invited to migrate to Cape Breton resulting in significant developments in Gaelic instruction in the Inverness County public school program and at the University College of Cape Breton (CBU).

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s Gaelic learners and enthusiasts from the US migrated to Cape Breton Island and the Northeastern Nova Scotia mainland. Some persevered through immersion in the Gaelic speaking communities to learn Gaelic. These later assumed leadership roles in teaching Gaelic and advocating for Gaelic language, culture and identity in Nova Scotia.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s further development ensued with Gaelic instruction at the Baile nan Gàidheal / The Highland Village and Colaisde na Gàidhlig / The Gaelic College and events such as Féis an Eilein (Christmas Island Festival) being developed.

In 1987, an international conference with focus on the ‘Politics of Gaelic Cultural Maintenance’ was held at UCCB the result of which was to actively organize grass-root advocates island-wide to form Comhairle na Gaidhlig (The Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia). Established in 1991, Comhairle na Gàidhlig, a non-profit society, dedicates its efforts to the maintenance and promotion of the Gaelic language, culture and identity.

In 1995, Gaelic was once again introduced into the province’s Education Act with the proviso that it would be built into the curriculum of a given school as a heritage language/local history study, provided there is demand from the student population and the teaching resources are available.

In 1997, Comhairle na Gàidhlig’s Gaelic in Nova Scotia: Opportunities report was submitted to the Department of Education. Out of 8 recommendations, one, the creation of a curriculum for public schools was adopted.

Various initiatives and reports (e.g. Gaelic Nova Scotia: An Economic, Cultural, and Social Impact Study (2002), Developing and Preserving Gaelic in Nova Scotia (2004), Minority Language Renewal: Gaelic in Nova Scotia and Lessons from Abroad (2008)) reflected community advocacy efforts and resulted in steps being taken by Government of Nova Scotia to recognize the language's decline and engage local speakers in reversing this trend.

Recommendations from these reports include focussing on community development, strengthening education, legislating road signs and publications, and building ties between the Gaelic community and other Nova Scotia "heritage language" communities (Mi'kmaq and Acadian). Increased ties were called for between Nova Scotia and Highland Council, Scotland, and a first such agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding, was signed in 2002.

21st Century

In 2004, a language learning methodology referred to as Total Immersion Plus (TIP) was introduced to the Nova Scotia Gaelic Community.

An activity based language learning approach, TIP involves: the creation of a Gaelic only immersion environment or setting; no English, or a very limited amount used during instruction; no translation from Gaelic to maternal language, i.e. English; the fostering of a low-stress learning environment; activity-based learning (a range of activities and topics); the use of props and audio/visual aids; the introduction and sharing of the language of the home; non-verbal communication, i.e. facial expressions, hand gestures, etc.; role playing or acting out specific tasks or activities with language included; repetition.

The Gàidhlig aig Baile (Gaelic in the Community) methodology employed by some instructors in Nova Scotia today is based upon the TIP approach with additional language acquisition and use best practices and research and includes Gaelic Nova Scotia cultural references.

In December 2006 Iomairtean na Gàidhlig (Gaelic Affairs) was established. A provincial government division whose vision is that Gaelic language, culture and identity is a basis for community, spiritual and economic renewal, Gaelic Affairs creates awareness, works with partners and provides tools and opportunities to learn, share and experience Gaelic language and culture.

Gaelic Affairs supports and manages the following government and community-based social learning initiatives: language and cultural awareness learning opportunities for government employees, language learning immersions and cultural awareness workshops for community groups, adult and youth language and cultural mentorship programs and the advancement of Gaelic language and cultural programming with organizational and institutional partners in the Gaelic Community.

In 2007, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal created a boundary sign policy that supports communities that demonstrate evidence of Gaelic cultural origins. In addition to the official English names, the Gaelic names may be displayed on boundary signs for communities in Cumberland, Colchester, Pictou, Antigonish, Guysborough, Inverness, Victoria, Richmond and Cape Breton Counties.

To date there are almost 300 boundary signs erected throughout most of these districts.

In 2015, there were 4149 Nova Scotians involved in Gaelic programming.

Present Department of Education supports include Gaelic Language and Studies courses, funding programming in 13 schools across the province with over 1000 students enrolled.

Three universities offer post-secondary courses specific to Gaelic language, culture, heritage and history.

Apart from institutional learning and study opportunities in the province, there are 3 Gaelic related institutions offering a range of programs that work to promote local Gaelic language and culture.

Four major festivals offer Gaelic language and cultural learning opportunities and stage performances.



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