The deaf community in Nova Scotia is rallying to preserve a sign language that’s unique to the region.

Maritime Sign Language is still used by older people in Atlantic Canada, but it hasn’t been passed down to younger people, who are taught American Sign Language.

Now, there’s a push to document MSL before it’s lost.

“The language itself has so many stories, has history, has perspectives of what’s important to the community, what was important at that time — all of that is in the language,” said Linda Campbell, a professor in the department of science at Saint Mary’s University.

Ashley Campbell, an ASL-English interpreter, facilitated communication in both languages for the interview with Campbell.

“If we lose MSL, that means we are losing the culture, the stories, the perspectives, those will all be lost. And it’s not a nice loss to have,” she said.

MSL is a descendant of British Sign Language, which was used in the region during the 1800s.


When Betty MacDonald attended the Halifax School for the Deaf from 1959-1961, and then the Amherst School for the Deaf for nine years after that, MSL was the language used.

MacDonald said students who came to Amherst from Montreal had never seen the MSL signs before.

The young generation today, they should be able to look at the history of the older deaf generation and also of the language, because a lot of them are not aware of it,” MacDonald said.

Debbie Johnson-Powell was the ASL-English interpreter for the interview with MacDonald.

Documenting the language

Now, people in the deaf community are documenting MSL on video, including it in plays and teaching it to interpreting students whenever possible, but there’s no formal class for MSL.

MacDonald does occasionally teach the language, but said it’s difficult to find the time, which is another reason they want to make videos that students can access.

A number of years ago, the Nova Scotia Cultural Society of the Deaf was given a grant to travel around the province and film people conversing in MSL.

Campbell said that while the number of fluent MSL speakers is in decline, the language is still used to some degree in the community.

“So many people here, when they come to Nova Scotia for the first time, and they go, ‘Hmm, they don’t understand this dialect.’ And it’s because MSL is being used and it’s been blended with ASL,” she said.

Campbell said because there’s no universal sign language, people in the community are skilled at finding a way to communicate even if they’re using different sign languages.

“They’re very talented in observing different languages and incorporating the language into their signing, and to support the learning process for other people that are not native to their language.”