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Losing identity and finding it again through language

Jessica Lazare is focused on continuing her dive into culture and language and plans on being a part of Kahnawake’s future. (courtesy Teiotsistohkwathe Jessica Lazare)

Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats Adult Immersion Program graduate Teiotsistohkwathe Jessica Lazare has her eyes on her community’s future and is taking the steps to be a part of it.

“I was in limbo with my identity, wondering what it was and what it meant to be a Mohawk person,” said Lazare when asked what motivated her to be a part of the two-year immersion program. “I wanted to learn more about the language and the culture.”

Before her interest in the language program, Lazare ran a little business named Coffee Cup Café in the building where Messy Kitchen is today.

The entrepreneur started running the coffee shop at 19 and had no intention of going to post-secondary school.

“I hated high school because it just wasn’t my scene,” she said. Lazare’s frustration with silly questions turned into an annoying reminder that she was separated from her culture.

“I lost a lot of my language,” she said. “I didn’t go to school in Kahnawake, I never learned the language and I didn’t grow up with all the kids my age. My grandmother is fluent and mother wouldn’t speak or teach the language.”

She often spent her time in her grandparents’ living room.

“My grandfather would tell me about his school and how he was struck by his teachers for speaking our language,” said Lazare. “At the time, I didn’t understand why or what the reason why it was so bad for us to speak our own language.”

Lazare was frustrated with her inability to speak with her grandmother in Kanien’kéha even at a young age.

“I really didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t able to speak with my grandmother,” she said. “It hurts to say this, but I would tell my grandmother to ‘speak English’ not knowing what it meant back then to say those exact words.”

Lazare never understood the importance of speaking the language until later in her teen years when she spent most her time waiting tables at Coffee Cup Café.

“When I was running my business, a lot of elders would come in and tell me their stories,” she said. “It triggered something in me, hearing those stories.”

Lazare took her shot at the Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats Adult Immersion Program when it was still only a single-year program, but didn’t make the cut because she was expecting a baby boy.

“It was like a wake-up call, listening to the elders. Then I got pregnant and that was an even bigger wake-up call,” she said.

After being rejected the first time around, she didn’t stand still.

After doing her fair share of jobs and career workshops, Lazare felt like she was ready to take on Ratiwennahní:rats once and for all, she said.

“I planned it out, my baby would be old enough to be in daycare, and the program was just starting their staggered classes,” she said.

Lazare’s expectations of the program were way off, she laughed, and she’s happy they were.

“I didn’t realize the magnitude of responsibility that comes with the course at first,” she said. “It was literally a spiritual awakening. It was nothing like what I thought it was going to be.”

The two-year adult immersion program was a turning point for Lazare, she said.

“The language itself is like a living entity. It changes the way you see yourself and it changes the way you see the world,” she said. 

“It’s hard to put into words what the language will do to you. It’s more than just learning words or another language, you’re learning about who you are and who your people are.”

In September, Lazare will enter a double major program at Concordia University in First Peoples Studies and Canadian and Quebec policy studies, and she intends to use her education to better the community.

“I’m taking these majors because I want to be able to understand the Indian Act, the Canadian government policies and the Quebec policies and then relay it back to my people,” she said. “So we can figure out how to go about these policies properly.”

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