Why Indigenous languages should be taught alongside French and English

Métis author Chelsea Vowel argues for the official protection of Canada’s Indigenous languages, which are currently on the brink of extinction

Stop sign in downtown Iqaluit, in 3 languages (English, French & Inuktitut).

Stop sign in downtown Iqaluit, in 3 languages (English, French & Inuktitut).

The 2016 census was released at the end of October, with numbers suggesting that the health of Indigenous languages has improved over the past 10 years. News reports focused on the fact that the number of people speaking one of 70 Indigenous languages in Canada has grown by 3.1 percent since 2006, and headlines declared that Indigenous languages are “surging” or “enduring.”

But in fact, no Indigenous language in Canada is considered safe, and three-quarters of these languages are endangered. The census differentiates between being able to speak a language and being able to converse in it, and reports that the proportion of people who can converse in an Indigenous language has gone down by 5.8 percent since 2006. This decline is serious enough, but the numbers are likely even worse, because “conversing” can mean so many things. As any traveller knows, having the ability to ask directions to the bathroom in a language is not the same as having the ability to chat about global politics in that language. We really don’t know how fluent people are.

Even more alarming is that fact that, since 1996, there has been a 52 percent drop in the number of people whose mother tongue is an Indigenous language. UNESCO lays out nine factors to measure the health of a language, and one of them is the ratio of of first-language speakers to second-language speakers. A significant decline in the number of mother-tongue speakers impairs intergenerational transmission, which is a major indicator of language health.

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All of this looks like severe language loss to me, not any kind of “surge.”

It is vital that we remember that these languages exist nowhere else in the world. When they die here, they die forever. Stripping Indigenous peoples of our languages was a deliberate policy of the residential school system, and despite a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that acknowledges this, there is yet to be any concrete action to reverse this damage.

There are constitutional protections and billions of dollars of funding for Canada’s two official languages, but what of the languages of the original peoples on these lands? I’m not suggesting that all 70 Indigenous languages be made mandatory and offered in every corner of this country. Instead, we need to be looking at supporting these languages where they exist, on the lands whence they originate. In Iqaluit, that would be Inuktitut, while in Halifax it would be Mi’kmaq. Each province and territory should pass an Official Languages Act recognizing the Indigenous languages that originate in those areas, and bolster this recognition with funding to ensure language transmission continues in schools, workplaces, and government. Incentivizing second-language learning in an Indigenous language could be done by hiring speakers in daycares, schools, and public service positions.

It often feels as though we are being asked to justify the continuing existence of our languages to a Canadian audience who may not value them. I believe we need to remind Canada that Indigenous languages are an Aboriginal right, enshrined in section 35 of the Constitution, as well as an inherent right — to speak and pass on our languages — that is recognized internationally by the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which Canada has officially adopted. What we need now is an implementation of those rights, supported with adequate funding.

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Everyone stands to gain. Embedded within our languages are cultural concepts that have the potential to give all Canadians a deeper understanding of our place in relation to the world around us. Our languages have been systematically devalued for generations out of a misplaced sense of their inferiority. Yet many of the concepts currently being explored by Western medicine, environmentalism, and the humanities are foundational within Indigenous cultures and languages. Holistic health and teachings, understandings of interconnectedness with human and non-human beings, and ways of being in good relation with one another are all described in our various Indigenous languages.

Public perception has a powerful impact on policy, and when Canadians are told that Indigenous languages are on the rise, this obscures just how desperate the situation is. Twenty-four of the Indigenous languages listed in the census have less than 200 speakers each, and if what we truly need are highly fluent speakers, then even these numbers are likely inflated. Even among the so-called robust languages — Cree, Inuktitut, and Ojibway — language loss is speeding up.

We can and must start planning to offer these languages alongside English and French throughout the country. Don’t let a rosy reading of the statistics lull you into a false sense of security. In 10 years, we will once again count the number of speakers of Indigenous languages in Canada. Without immediate, robust, and heartfelt intervention, language decline will be irreversible. As someone who has fought hard to access and reclaim her own Cree language, I am asking Canadians to recognize that we are at a tipping point. Please, support us, and come learn with us.


Why Indigenous languages should be taught alongside French and English

  1. Right alongside spearing fish, birchbark canoe building and how to organize a war party with clubs, spears and bows.

    Indigenous people don’t bring civilization to the table.

    They romanticize about their unwritten primitive history with their hands out for modern conveniences and slum living on ancestral lands.

    What works were originally written in “aboriginal”?

    • You trip and fall in your white robe again?

      Hood must be blocking your eyes.

    • How unfashionable to be white again, yet wondering who’s land this is as contentious arises from opportunity seekers.

      • Whose land this is? In the past, tribes warred for control of the resources.

        Until they took in a new tribe and lost.

        We still hear their incessant whining.

        You want wilderness? Leave your trucks, guns and big screen tvs behind and take a long walk deep into the woods and don’t look back.

        Not man enough? We brought civilization, get a job.

        • I am man enough and white. I agree with you on everything. I meant we must be patriots and royalists and bring forward a conclusion to this wonderful history that we have.

          • They’re whining and our government is pandering. It’s pathetic.

            One of them has to stop.

          • What are you guys…..the Canadian Borg?

            Sorry, it’s native land.

          • Our anthem goes, “Our home and native land.”

            You obviously misunderstood it.

  2. Language is a tool. I’m half Norwegian and ‘we’ were provably here at least half a millennium before the English and French so why aren’t my native languages – there are 5 in addition to English – ahead of them? The fact is that every country has its majority language(s) forming the basis of general communication – call it assimilation if you like. Globally English is the 2nd most common native language while French is 14th with 5 times as many native English speakers as French; should(n’t) we worry about potential assimilation there? Okay, so we can admit that, excepting English, the other majority Norwegian language lags behind more than 100 others. Since there are some 7000 living languages of which more than 100 are traditional to a significant number of Canadians, it’s obviously improbable to incorporate all of them within an education system. There is of course room for regional language training; for example, German classes are popular in the Kitchener-Waterloo area although this is an adaptation outside of the public school system. Practically, language of instruction is still more fraught with difficulty as a well developed body of resource material requires a critical mass to support it. And while it is true that languages of indigenous people have a degree of legal protection (certainly justified by past history), this is not an exclusion of other languages: one must allow that Italian Canadians or all Canadians for that matter are not precluded from learning Italian.

  3. The author has got to be kidding. Taking a language doesn’t mean you can converse in it. Most anglos who took French for many years in both public and high school can’t converse in it since the moment they walked out of the school doors they left it behind since there was no opportunity nor desire to practice it.

    • A teacher can only open the door.

      It’s up to you to walk through it.

  4. To better justify the project perhaps we should have a look at the financial allocation of First Nation funding across Canada. You know, accountability.

  5. I encourage people to do some quick research into past statements made by this author regarding a certain race. Why she and others like her are allowed to express their views in mainstream media is beyond comprehension.

    • Correction. Yes, she should be allowed to express her views anywhere. I would consider her past statements as radical and hateful. Any article should include references to her world views.