“The Gaels of Nova Scotia” Program for Halifax Public Libraries

by Jun 5, 2013

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, May is Gaelic Awareness Month in Nova Scotia. In May 2013, Sgoil Ghàidhlig an Àrd-Bhaile, the Halifax Gaelic Society, worked together with the Halifax Public Libraries to plan a series of free public workshops on various aspects of Gaelic language and culture. Members of the Gaelic community in Halifax were asked to propose workshop presentations on topics with which they were familiar, and the various library branches selected ones to host and promote.


Halifax Library Guide featuring "The Gaels of Nova Scotia" May/June 2013

Halifax Library Guide featuring “The Gaels of Nova Scotia” May/June 2013


Halifax Public Libraries did a fantastic job with the graphic design in the library guide. The cover image is from the 2013 calendar produced by the Office of Gaelic Affairs. Design is a particular interest of mine and I am always looking for good examples that incorporate the Gaelic language and culture. Of course, I might be biased, because it’s my kid’s hands that are in the lower left-hand corner of the photo!


Penguins reading about Gaels in Nova Scotia at Alderney Library

Penguins reading about Gaels in Nova Scotia at Alderney Library


These workshops are intended to make people (and penguins) aware that Gaelic is still spoken in Nova Scotia, and was a language and culture of many of their ancestors. Why do we need to do raise awareness? Because although Gaelic speakers have played key roles in Nova Scotian and Canadian history, Gaelic has been erased from that history.

Gaelic was the third largest language in Canada at the time of confederation (1867), and was the fourth most commonly-spoken language in Canada in the 1901 census,* but only a handful of Canadians know that.  Dr. Mike Kennedy explains how the founding myth of Canada, “biculturalism,” has erased the Gaels:

Canada prides itself on being a liberal, multicultural society but with its historical identity rooted primarily in “two founding cultures” — an English majority and a smaller but older French minority — who have lived together in mutual tolerance for centuries. According to this model, the French and English form the ethnic bedrock of Canadian society, but it is a model whose historical accuracy has been widely disputed. Aboriginal people have understandably found the whole idea of founding nations offensive, but it is perhaps Scottish Gaels who are most fundamentally lost to history in this paradigm and who best reveal the most critical flaw inherent in the concept of two founding “cultural” groups in Canada. (Michael Kennedy, Gaelic in Nova Scotia: An Economic, Cultural, and Social Impact Study, Curatorial Report no. 97, Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum, p. 27.)

Fortunately, there are a lot of knowledgeable and talented Gaels in Halifax, who have a great deal to share. Here is the complete workshop listing from the May/June 2013 Library Guide (it’s also available as a PDF):

Halifax Library Guide "Gaels of NS" workshop listings

Halifax Library Guide “Gaels of Nova Scotia” workshop listings


As part of this series, I co-presented a workshop with Reverend Ivan Gregan on Celtic Spirituality at Cole Harbour Public Library on May 22, 2013. In another post I may present some materials from that workshop, but here I’ll just say that it was focused on Scottish Gaelic spirituality and traditional prayers. Library staff had told us not to be disappointed if 0-10 people attended, so we were very pleasantly surprised (and scrambling for chairs) when 40 people came! They told us that this set a new attendance record for a workshop at their branch. All to hear our patter…

Celtic spirituality workshop

Celtic spirituality workshop with Rev. Ivan Gregan and Dr. Emily McEwan-Fujita

Ivan: Give me your finger.
Emily: Don’t pull it though!
Ivan: Here’s a Gaelic prayer, in English…

Seriously, though, the attendees paid rapt attention and asked great questions. We hope to be able to offer this workshop again in the future!

Alys Howe, a friend and amazing Celtic harpist who also happens to work at the Cole Harbour Public Library, helped to promote the workshop ahead of time:


Alys and Emily with Celtic Spirituality workshop sign

Alys and Emily with Celtic Spirituality workshop sign

Despite running around like a headless chicken all month, I did manage to get to two other library workshops presented by friends at the Spring Garden branch (soon to be replaced by the Halifax Central Library).

One was Dr. Michael Newton’s screening and discussion of his new video “Singing against the Silence.” From his home base in Antigonish, Michael produced a short documentary telling the story of Gaels in Nova Scotia for the first time on the screen. The video is narrated by Michael entirely in Gaelic, with subtitles in English. It features interviews with Gaelic speakers from around the province, reflecting on the importance of their language and culture and the discrimination endured by their ancestors. Through an interview with a Mi’kmaq elder, the documentary also draws a parallel between the treatment of the two ethnolinguistic groups, the aboriginal people of Nova Scotia and the Gaelic immigrants, by the English-speaking government. This interview, and one with a young woman who is exploring innovative musical territory as she learns Gaelic language and song, help to give fresh and concrete perspectives on our situation. It is useful to consider  not only our own past, but also the pasts of other minoritized groups in the province, and the role of cultural innovation in our future, as we move forward with Gaelic in the 21st century.


"Singing against the Silence: The Gaels of Nova Scotia" - A Video Documentary by Michael Newton (2012)

“Singing against the Silence: The Gaels of Nova Scotia” – A Video Documentary by Michael Newton (2012)


I had missed earlier screenings of the documentary in Halifax and Antigonish – sometimes it’s hard to get out in the evening or travel long distances when you have a gasag(little sprout) to take care of!

The other event I attended was Lewis MacKinnon’s Gaelic poetry reading. Lewis (known as Lodaidh in Gaelic) is the fellow on the right in the documentary screenshot above (his dad is on the left). Lodaidh is the head of the Office of Gaelic Affairs, a division of the Department of Communities, Culture, and Heritage in the Nova Scotia government.

He is from Antigonish County and has just published a new book of poetry titled Fleodragan-Cabair (“Raft”). His first book of Gaelic poetry, published in 2008, is titled Famhair (“Giant”). In October 2011 he was crowned Bàrd at the Royal National Mòd in Scotland, the first non-Scottish bàrd in the long history of the event.

Lodaidh started off the event not by reading his own work, but by playing recordings of different Gaelic speakers reading several poems from Famhair. Each speaker had been chosen by Lodaidh to read a particular poem according to their vocal quality and personality. Lodaidh himself then read several poems from his new book, including one about his great uncle which moved both reader and audience to tears, and one praising women who work so hard behind the scenes for Gaelic revitalization in Nova Scotia.

Speaking of hard-working women doing good things for Gaelic, Etta Moffatt created the design for Lodaidh’s new book and they are pictured together here (though it’s awfully hard to get Etta to keep a straight face long enough to take a photo!):


Lodaidh and Etta with Lodaidh’s new book

Lodaidh and Etta with Lodaidh’s new book


As a presenter and participant, I really enjoyed these events. But let me put on my sociolinguist hat for a moment and say that these free public events are also very good examples of EGIDS Stage 10 efforts to reverse language shift. The EGIDS (which stands for “Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale”) is a tool developed by linguists for analyzing just how endangered a language is, and prioritizing the planning to reverse language shift. Joshua Fishman, a sociologist of language and the developer of the original GIDS, has defined “reversing language shift” (RLS) as:

the theory and practice of assistance to speech communities whose native languages are threatened because their intergenerational continuity is proceeding negatively, with fewer and fewer users … or uses every generation (Fishman, Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages, 1991, p. 1).

RLS is a special approach to language revitalization, which can be defined more generally as:

the attempt to add new forms or new functions to a language which is threatened with language loss or death, with the aim of increasing its uses and users (Kendall King, Language Revitalization Processes and Prospects: Quichua in the Ecuadorian Andes, 2001, p. 4).

Working from Fishman’s original GIDS and the EGIDS developed by other linguists, I have created a special Nova Scotia Gaelic EGIDS which allows us to see how endangered Nova Scotia Gaelic is, and how different revitalization activities can contribute to reversing language shift and preventing its disappearance.

Stage 10, which I already mentioned, involves reaching out to people who do not feel a sense of ethnic identity associated with Gaelic, and those for whom it is a reminder of their heritage identity, but only tenuously. We try to give these people a chance to rediscover Nova Scotia Gaelic (see Table 4, p. 170, in my chapter).

Consciousness-raising efforts at Stage 10 are necessary because Gaelic is in such a precarious state here in the province. It was erased from history, and if it is to continue into the future here, we must provide the means for people to learn about the Gaelic past and present of the province.

Halifx Public Library Webpage featuring "Gaels of Nova Scotia" Program

Halifx Public Library Webpage featuring “Gaels of Nova Scotia” Program


*Census analysis conducted by Jonathan Dembling (2006), “Gaelic in Canada: new evidence from an old census,” In Cànan & Cultar/Language & Culture: Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 3, ed. Wilson McLeod, James Fraser and Anja Gunderloch, pp. 203-14. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press.

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