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Canada’s Indigenous language legislation promises much but lacks resources

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 1, 2019

“I hope it allows us to create agreements directly with the federal government,”


The federal government’s legislation to support the preservation and promotion of Indigenous languages met with a mixed reception after its introduction in early February, with some groups feeling left out of the development process and others waiting to see if it proves to be more than a simply symbolic gesture.

During a United Nations event to launch the International Year of Indigenous Languages, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said, “It will be a historic way to mark the International Year of Indigenous Languages when this country – that once tried to eradicate our languages – passes a bill that was developed with us to protect, promote and revitalize our languages.”

However, Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, accused the government of engaging “in bad faith” and criticized the bill for lacking meaningful federal obligations.

He asserted that the proposed national Indigenous languages commissioner will be “a powerless advocacy body, perpetually burdened by costly and onerous reporting duties, controlled by the federal government and serving to consume resources best directed to Indigenous peoples ourselves.”

The proposed law establishes an Office of Commissioner of Indigenous Languages. It will conduct research on the use and vitality of Indigenous languages, fund language revitalization and promotion programs, and manage complaints made under the Act.

Many of the bill’s details will be worked out with Indigenous groups as Parliament considers it over the coming months. The Liberals hope to see it passed into law in the next eight months before the federal election is called. It was one of Justin Trudeau’s key election promises, with the 2017 budget pledging $89.9 million over three years for Indigenous languages in response to calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The government says that three-quarters of the country’s 90 living Indigenous languages are endangered, with some only spoken by a handful of Elders. According to Statistics Canada, a total of 263,840 Indigenous people reported being able to speak their language in 2016 – a drop from 29% to 16% in 20 years.

Cree School Board Chairperson Sarah Pash told the Nation that recognizing Indigenous language rights is a positive step forward and hopes the proposed law will enable greater self-determination for funding research and program development. She seeks Indigenous involvement in budget decisions and hopes that funding is flexibly and equitably allocated.

“We don’t actually need this federal law to recognize that our language is important – we’ve recognized that for ourselves already.”

“I hope it allows us to create agreements directly with the federal government,” Pash said. “Right now, we’re in a reactionary position because we always have to meet requirements of federal funding programs so really we’re not able to be fully self-determining.”

Cree is the most widely spoken Indigenous language in Canada, counting its numerous dialects. Language preservation has long been a priority in Eeyou Istchee, where self-governance since the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement has allowed for independent language and education initiatives.

“We’re really in a position of strength right now,” Pash affirmed. “We don’t actually need this federal law to recognize that our language is important – we’ve recognized that for ourselves already.”

According to Elma Moses, the Cree School Board Deputy Director General of Pedagogy, the CSB is developing educational materials, curriculum and spelling standardization in both northern and southern dialects, and modernization initiatives to ensure the long-term viability of the language.

“I’m a former Cree language translator and in the 1980s there was really nothing,” Moses told the Nation. “For my translation, I only used a binder and a dictionary published in the 1890s – just to tell you how far we’ve come with the Cree language and the School Board.”

Considering the damage that’s been done to Indigenous languages over the whole colonial period in various ways, the challenge is huge, asserted Pash.

“Language has taken a beating over centuries,” she said. “There’s going to have to be a lot of serious work done to make sure that the revitalization and maintenance and research programs are really supported in authentic ways.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.