As Canada approaches its 150th anniversary, it is important to remember that the foundations of the country were laid long before 1867 by the Indigenous peoples that live on the lands that are now called Canada.
While 150 years is certainly a cause for celebration, it is also an important time to reflect on loss of Indigenous language, culture, and sense of identity resulting from colonization, the residential school system, the 60s scoop, and continued systemic oppression.
Of the 300 Indigenous languages originally spoken in Canada, only 58 remain, and only two are expected to survive if immediate action is not taken. Increasingly fewer Indigenous people claim a First Nation, Metis or Inuit language as their mother tongue, decreasing from 87.4 to 29.3 percent between 1951 and 1981, compounded with a growing average age of individuals within this group.
During a special assembly of First Nations Chiefs and leaders in November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the government will introduce an Indigenous Languages Act, attempting to preserve, protect and revitalize First Nations, Metis and Inuit languages. This comes in the wake of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which published 94 “Calls to Action” encouraging federal, provincial, territorial and Indigenous levels of government to concentrate their actions together to repair the harm caused by residential schools.
Indigenous language rights, the enactment of an Indigenous Languages Act, the appointment of an Indigenous Languages Commissioner, and the creation of university and college degree and diploma programs in Indigenous languages were included amongst the actions, stressing the importance of language to the revitalization and preservation of Indigenous culture. The Commission also requested that governments waive administrative fees for a period of five years to allow survivors and their descendants to restore their traditional names, which were often forcibly replaced with European names.
The Liberal Government’s Budget 2017 has committed $89.9 million over the next three years, with funds designated for learning materials, language classes, archiving and digitization of languages, and the preservation of oral histories. In a random survey of 1,000 Canadians, 18 years of age or older, conducted by Nanos Research, it was found that while the majority of Canadians were not aware of the proposed Indigenous Languages Act, three-quarters of Canadians were in support of preserving, protecting and revitalizing First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages. This indicates that as Canadians, we recognize the value of language to culture, identity, and heritage.
Currently, the Northwest Territories is the only region in Canada that recognizes more than English and French as official languages. Recognizing nine Indigenous languages belonging to three language families (Dene, Inuit, and Cree), the responsibilities of the Aboriginal Languages Secretariat include overseeing the Official Languages Act & Regulations, and supporting access to programs and services in all eleven official languages.
Approximately 213,500 people in Canada reported an Indigenous mother tongue in the 2011 Census, with the majority of these individuals speaking an Indigenous language most often at home. It is unclear how the Act will influence access to information and services in their language of choice, but will hopefully signal a shift toward greater language rights in Canada.
The Government of Canada has a long way to go in its efforts to advance reconciliation, but establishing an Indigenous Languages Act is an important first step.
-Laura Maxwell, Social Impact Coordinator, Toronto, Ontario, June 30, 2017