With numerous Indigenous languages in use across Canada but many facing a shrinking pool of speakers, work is underway to recognize their importance and to preserve and revitalize these languages.
The Truth and Reconciliation report and its calls to action offer insight and instruction in how to recognize injustices against Indigenous peoples and how to take action toward reconciliation, including actions specific to Indigenous languages.
On the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, Global News is looking at what work is already underway — and what more can be done.
Over 70 Indigenous languages in use across Canada
“People assume that we’re all the same, but we’re not,” says Ray John, a teacher and Indigenous cultural adviser with the Catholic school board in London, Ont.
“And when we look at a very diverse place like Europe, how many different cultures are there? Different languages and different lifestyles? That’s what we have here. When you say that, it now sparks more questions and more wondering: what is it like to be Oneida living here, or a Cree, or an Anishinaabe or a Delaware person?”
Statistics Canada says over 70 Aboriginal languages were reported in the 2016 Census. According to the federally-funded Canadian Encyclopedia, about 40 of those languages have 500 or fewer speakers. In many cases, a majority of those speakers are in their 70s or 80s, adding urgency to the need to revitalize these languages.
“Each community were losing their language, little by little by way of the children,” says Hubert Antone, 70, who escaped the residential school system by hiding in the bushes with his siblings when an official came to their house.
Antone says, including him, there are roughly 20 fluent speakers of the Oneida language left.
“At this point, I think I’m probably the only instructor left,” he told Global News.
“There’s not that much time left of teaching the language, from my perspective. The only other way is to try and see if I can get other people to learn the language enough to go out and teach it. And that’s where Fanshawe comes in.”
Revitalization efforts across Canada
In August, Fanshawe College in London, Ont., announced that it would be launching a new program to “help address an urgent need to grow the number of Oneida language speakers,” in partnership with Oneida Nation of the Thames.
“I was surprised on how many people wanted to sign up and have signed up and there’s only a certain amount of seats available,” Antone said, noting that members of the Oneida Nation take priority.
In addition to the program at Fanshawe, Antone says the Oneida Nation of the Thames has its own language and culture centre where recordings are archived and second language learners are helping to teach in daycare and kindergarten classes on their reserve.
Still, he says the community doesn’t have enough funding to really “make a go for it.”
The program at Fanshawe College is one of numerous and diverse efforts across all of Canada focused on Indigenous languages.
Indigenous Languages of Manitoba, founded in 1985 as the Manitoba Association for Native Languages, works to preserve and support seven Indigenous languages: Anishinimowin, Michif, Inuktitut, Dene, Dakota, Anishinaabemowin and Ininimowin.
“Just recently, in the last few years, we’ve gotten into training and professional development for our educators, as well as working with other organizations and communities,” said executive director Melanie Kennedy.
While the pandemic has impacted programming that would normally be held in person, the organization has launched a radio drama series as part of a partnership with the University of Manitoba, University of Winnipeg and Mazinaate Publishing. They also offer remote programming which allows them to extend services beyond Winnipeg.
ILMB summer student Kale Swampy, who is Anishinaabe from Sagkeeng First Nation, has been helping to coordinate and plan events and programming.
“I’m very passionate about our Indigenous language and culture. Especially with everything going on right now with residential schools and stuff. It’s important that we learn this language because our ancestors couldn’t.”
In British Columbia, the B.C. Métis Federation, in partnership with Canadian Heritage, has created the Michif Language Project to preserve what director of language Jeanie Cardinal describes as “the only Canadian-developed language.” The language, which includes many dialects, combined French, or in some cases English or Scots Gaelic, with Indigenous languages, mostly Algonquin or Cree.
Michif French is the first language of B.C. Métis Federation vice president Rene Therrien, 76, who grew up speaking it in Manitoba.
“When I started school our Michif French wasn’t allowed to be spoken in school, so I did lose a bit. But right now it’s my passion to be able to bring it back again.”
Cardinal says that according to the last census, there were less than a thousand Michif speakers still living, most of them in their 70s or older.
“Within the next 10 years, we will lose our language altogether if we don’t start to do revitalization now.”
As part of revitalization efforts, the Michif Language Project was launched three years ago in consultation with the community and with a focus on Michif French.
For the project, the team has so far created a curriculum from kindergarten to Grade 6 that involves using stories to teach language and share their culture. The curriculum includes the written and illustrated stories as well as audio.
Cardinal says that curriculum is ready and will soon be uploaded to their website. The next phase is to create more challenging curriculum for grades seven through 12.
Calls to Action on language
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, introduced in late 2015, include five items specific to language and culture:
- Acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights
- Enact an Aboriginal Languages Act
- Appoint, in consultation with Aboriginal groups, an Aboriginal Languages Commissioner
- Create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages
- Enable residential school survivors and their families to reclaim names changed by the system by waiving administrative fees for five years
The Canadian government has begun to address some of these items while some, it says, are not within its jurisdiction, such as the call to action for post-secondary institutions to create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages.
The University of British Columbia Okanagan campus, the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and the En’owkin Centre announced in March 2021 that they would be offering the first-ever bachelor’s degree in Indigenous language fluency.
In 2019, An Act respecting Indigenous Languages came into effect with an aim to support and promote the use of Indigenous languages. The Act also pledged to respond to Call to Action 15, to introduce an Aboriginal Languages Commissioner.
In June 2021, Stsmél̓qen, Ronald E. Ignace was named Commissioner of Indigenous Languages.
Statistics Canada data also provides some hope for language revitalization. The number of Indigenous people who could speak an Indigenous language climbed by 3.1 per cent between 2006 and 2016, with more people reporting they could speak the language than those reporting it as their first language.
Stats Can reported that data suggests “that many people, especially young people, are learning Aboriginal languages as second languages.”
Canada is taking “important steps” to funding projects like the Michif Language Project, says Cardinal, but more resources are needed to implement and sustain the projects.
Antone stressed that because government actions are directly related to the loss of language, the government has a responsibility to support restoration efforts.
“They need to step up and say, ‘Hey, we took it away. We’ll do anything to help you regain that language.'”
Links to all of the calls to action, divided by category, can be found on the Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada website.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
— with files from Global News’ Jaclyn Carbone and Marney Blunt.