Jewish advocacy group backs push to revitalize Indigenous languages
Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Pablo Rodriguez rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. Rodriguez will be addressing the United Nations General Assembly Friday on the subject of Indigenous languages. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Justin Tang)
A Canadian Jewish advocacy group is pushing the federal government to do more to revitalize dying Indigenous languages, drawing a comparison between the plight of those languages and the revival of Hebrew.
Prior to the late 19th century, Hebrew had essentially died out aside from religious uses. An effort was made at this point to revive the language, primarily so Jewish people who had recently immigrated to Palestine from various other parts of the world could communicate in a common tongue.
Hebrew remains in use today, spoken by approximately nine million people.
“A hundred years ago people thought basically it was dead, and now one of the most popular shows on Netflix is [Hebrew-language] Fauda,” Richard Marceau told CTVNews.ca.
“[Hebrew] is probably one of the best examples of what can be done when there is a will, when there is a commitment and when there are means put behind bringing back a language from the disappearance.”
Marceau is the vice-president of external relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) advocacy group. Revitalizing Canada’s Indigenous languages has been one of the group’s top priorities for several years.
While Indigenous languages might seem like an odd issue for a Jewish advocacy group, Marceau says CIJA considers it important to protect all forms of Canadian diversity – with language as one of the most important elements of that diversity.
“A language is not only a code to explain how to shovel snow or start a car,” Marceau said.
“It explains … values, traditions, history, identity. Well-used, it can be a great pride and building tool that will give confidence.”
The United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. CIJA representatives were invited by the Assembly of First Nations to attend a series of events in New York City this week to mark the official launch of the year.
The federal government has had a presence at this week’s events as well, with Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Minister Pablo Rodriguez scheduled to speak to the UN General Assembly on Friday.
Rodriguez and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett issued a joint statement this week blaming actions by past Canadian government for the “endangered” state of the majority of the country’s Indigenous languages.
“Urgent action is required,” they said.
New legislation, the country’s first Indigenous Languages Act, is expected to be introduced later this year. Marceau said he was not privy to all the details of the legislation, but has heard enough to believe it will be “a great step in the right direction.”
According to the UN, 40 per cent of the world’s 6,700 languages were considered to be endangered as of 2016.
There is no consensus on the number of Indigenous languages currently in existence in Canada, with most estimates ranging between 60 and 90. Most of these languages have fewer than 2,000 speakers. Data from the 2016 census shows that 137,515 Canadians report speaking an Indigenous language at home more often than any other language.