Indigenous languages bill aims to revive culture, proposes new commissioner
Published Tuesday, February 5, 2019 10:50AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, February 5, 2019 2:12PM EST
OTTAWA – The federal government has tabled a new bill aimed at reviving and maintaining Indigenous languages in Canada, including creating a new Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the new co-developed Indigenous languages bill his government has introduced is about "strengthening" Indigenous culture, though already one key group is vocalizing their disappointment about the proposed legislation.
Bill C-91, the Indigenous Languages Act, was introduced in the House of Commons by Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Minister Pablo Rodriguez. He told reporters on Tuesday that many of the Indigenous languages in Canada are considered endangered.
The bill includes measures to support and promote the use of Indigenous languages and to fund measures to do so, including making it so that federal institutions to better facilitate the use of Indigenous languages, including having documents translated or providing Indigenous interpretation.
It also vows to support Indigenous people with the creation of educational material like audio and video recordings of fluent speakers, written lexicons and dictionaries, and permanent records of Indigenous languages.
The new Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages will be mandated to support Indigenous efforts to protect their languages; to promote public awareness about Indigenous languages; to study and research funding for services; and annually report on the vitality of Indigenous languages in Canada and how effective the government’s efforts are.
'A symbolic gesture'
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national voice of Inuit people in Canada is expressing disappointment in the bill, calling it "a symbolic gesture" that does not address Inuit rights to speak their language.
The government has touted Bill C-91 as being developed in collaboration with Indigenous people, including more than 50 "engagement sessions" across Canada, attended by more than 1,200 people.
Though, ITK President Natan Obed disagrees with that characterization.
"Despite being characterized as a reconciliation and co-development initiative, the Government of Canada engaged Inuit in bad faith throughout this legislative initiative," he said in a statement.
"The absence of any Inuit-specific content suggests this bill is yet another legislative initiative developed behind closed doors by a colonial system and then imposed on Inuit," Obed said. ITK called the new commissioner role "powerless."
ITK had sought an Inuktitut-specific standalone bill, or specific provisions in the legislation tabled Tuesday. That did not happen.
Other Indigenous stakeholders were more positive about the new legislation. Rodriguez was joined on stage by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Métis National Council’s Clara Morin-Dal Col in making the announcement.
Bellegarde called the bill "landmark legislation" and said Indigenous languages are fundamental to First Nations' identity.
"We need to put the same amount of time and energy into revitalizing our languages as Canada put into trying to eliminate them, and today there is hope," Bellegarde said.
Morin-Dal Col described the bill as a "giant first step," towards addressing the longstanding struggle to preserve Indigenous languages.
"The last time the Metis nation participated in the shaping of federal legislation was 1870," she said.
The government is vowing to continue work with Indigenous groups like the AFN, ITK, and the Métis National Council as the bill makes its way through the legislative process.
There are about five months left of parliamentary time to try to see the bill pass through both the House and Senate, otherwise it’ll die on the order paper and be up to the next government to revive should the desire.
During a post-announcement photo opportunity Bellegarde could be heard saying: "Let's say Royal Assent together."
'A way to strengthen'
"You have a handful of people remaining that speak the language and they will disappear in a matter of a couple of years. We have to make sure first that what we do is flexible so they’re able to adapt it to their own realities and second that they have all the mechanisms necessary to protect, preserve and revitalize," Rodriguez said.
The bill comes after the government promised to create new legislation to promote Indigenous languages early in its mandate.
"I am deeply pleased today that we’ll be putting forward Indigenous languages legislation that we worked on with Indigenous peoples. It's a way to strengthen their culture, recognize their identity, their language and make sure that we're strengthening it for years to come," Trudeau said on his way into a cabinet meeting.
The bill is meant to implement some of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and parts of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Last year, after a House of Commons committee called for better accommodation of Indigenous languages in Parliament. As part of that report, it was noted that Census data shows a decline in the number of people with an Indigenous mother tongue, and Indigenous language knowledge.
The report notes the average age of people with an Indigenous mother tongue was 36.7 years in 2016, a nine year jump since 1981.
There are 58 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada, comprising more than 90 distinct dialects. Of these languages, only six have more than 10,000 people who report it as their mother tongue: the Cree languages, Dene, lnnu, lnuktitut, Ojibway and Oji-Cree.