Educating Language Rights: Our Language Rights Canada Conference 2023

By: Cheryl

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

Last month, MCIS sponsored and co-hosted the Our Language Rights Canada Conference 2023 in celebration of the third Canadian Language Advocacy Day. As one of the initiatives sponsored by MCIS’ SBI (Social Benefit Initiative) fund, the conference was held to promote equitable language rights and to strengthen the allying of language advocacy.

This year, the conference’s theme was Language, Education and Stories Untold. Through two keynote speeches and four panels, language advocates, academics and panelists working in other fields that intersect with language industry shared their stories and perspectives. They stressed on the importance of education in the movement of combating language barriers. Here are some of the highlights:

“I was allowed to be different” – An Inuit perspective

Our first keynote speaker at the conference, Aaju Peter, shared her story of being “twice colonized.”

Born in Greenland, Peter was raised in Greenlandic, the language of colonizers who Christianized her Inuit ancestors. She was taken to Denmark for what was thought to be a superior education after Denmark conquered her island when she was in primary school and pushed the use of the Danish language. She was then thrown into an all-Danish environment, spoke only Danish, learned to use knives and forks, and had to relocate every three months. The turbulent childhood left a long-lasting impression. When she finally returned to her family at 18, she felt foreign in her own home. Having lost her first language, she couldn’t communicate with her mother anymore.

It was until the late 1970s and 1980s that Peter’s life changed again. Having moved to the Canadian Arctic, she was introduced to Inuktitut, the language that was lost on her that her ancestors once spoke. Surprised and impressed by the culture, language environment and the people who lived as they did a thousand years ago, she picked up Inuktitut and learned to be proud instead of ashamed of speaking her own language. She later became an activist who’s very protective of hunting rights and the rights of passing down the culture to the younger generations. In her speech, she described a moment when she joined the local Inuit community at a traditional gathering to witness the first sunlight bursting from the horizon after a long polar night. “I felt alive again,” she said.

The Inuit language defenders

Despite the fact that we live in a more progressive Canada compare to the 60s when Peter was born, colonization and its impacts still exist on both a systematic and systemic level. In our panel The Inuit Language Defenders, activists and academics shared their findings on what’s happening in the territory of Nunavut.

“Nice white people speaking nice polite language trying to eradicate a thousand-year-long history” is what Canadian colonialism looks like, said Derek Rasmussen from Simon Fraser University. According to Rasmussen, Inuktut languages are disturbingly underrepresented in Nunavut, especially in the education system where the implementation of language teaching is sorely needed.

Educational researchers opposed Bill 37, which would have replaced the right to K–12 teaching in Inuktut with a much-delayed and watered down right to “majority of instruction” in Inuktut exclusively from K–9, in an open letter to the Prime Minister in 2017. Despite media attention the letter received and facts based on studies, Inuktut education in the k-12 system was further delayed and scaled back when a new law was introduced in 2019. Basing on Rasmussen’s research, the Inuit people are losing their language by 12 per cent every decade, and Inuit parents would lose their food allowance if they refuse to send children into the education system. This “fits into the definition of genocide,” he said.

According to the researchers, preserving and promoting Inuit culture in Nunavut is extremely important for nation-building since it is a province where Indigenous people outnumber Anglophones even more than Francophones do in Quebec. It doesn’t seem to make sense that over 85 per cent of the population have to live in a second-language environment, where law enforcement, education systems, court and medical systems are all English-only. At the end of the panel, researchers shared online resources on Inuktut language-learning and called for voices of support from all provinces across the country. “We need more MPs across the country to reflect on (the issue),” said Shelley Tulloch, Chair of the Anthropology Department at The University of Winnipeg.

An endangered sign language

Spoken languages aren’t the only ones facing endangerment. In the second keynote speech presented by Dr. Beverly Buchanan, she discussed the endangerment and preservation of a century-old language: Maritime Sign Language (MSL).

MSL was brought to Canada by the early settlers from the U.K. In the 1800s, two Scottish immigrants started teaching the old British Sign Language to their landlord’s child and people who are deaf in the community. They later established the Halifax School for the Deaf. Under the influence and lobbying of the local church, MSL came into shape and was officially recognised by the local government.

That was the hay day of MSL; until years later, under the influence of the U.S., American Sign Language (ASL) became the mainstream and MSL faded out of sight of the public. MSL became a local language of Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and even Bill C-81 doesn’t recognize it as one of the languages of people who are deaf in Canada.

As a still-in-use social language, MSL preserves the historical culture of Maritime Canada. In Buchanan’s research, she found there are a lot of gendered use of the language, where men and women have different habits of code-switching between MSL and ASL that lead to findings of language evolvement and transportation. MSL also preserves some unique vocabularies that aren’t found anywhere else. Take the word “hamburger” as an example: In ASL it’s signed with two palms against each other like the shape of a typical sandwich, whereas in MSL it’s signed by mimicking the mechanism of a manual meat grinder.

The efforts of Buchanan and her colleagues to save MSL remain ongoing. When thinking about protecting endangered languages, we have to keep in mind of sign languages as well, which are more at risk, she signed. Her team is now collecting old video footages of people using the language, in an effort to preserve it digitally.

From the languages of Indigenous people of the land to those of European emigrants, and from spoken to sign languages; there are so much more cultures in Canada facing extinction. Education, being the only means to pass the knowledge on, has unparalleled significance henceforth. Language protection is a decades-long expedition, in which calls for not only the impacted communities, but each individual’s input.

Learn about MCIS’ interpreter training programs:

Learn about MCIS’ translator training programs: