The State of Canada’s Indigenous Languages by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel

Editorial Introduction to Ellen Gabriel’s “The State of Canada’s Indigenous Languages”

             Language as identity. Language as knowledge. Language as law. There are many ways in which the health of Indigenous languages is fundamental to the health of Indigenous peoples. The Canadian government recognized this in its aggressive policy of language suppression implemented in the Indian Residential School System. Current Indigenous leaders also recognize it as a crucial challenge to the process of decolonization, and as a key aspect of Indigenous self-determination.

           Our first contributor to this series, Ellen Gabriel, helps us understand the colonial backdrop against which the dialogue of Indigenous language revitalization takes place. A member of the Kanehsatà:ke community, Gabriel was a community spokesperson during the 1990 Oka Crisis, and has since been an active proponent of Indigenous rights, participating in several meetings of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). She is particularly active as an advocate for Indigenous language revitalization and self-determination.

           In her 2016 intervention at the UNPFII, Gabriel said that, “Indigenous peoples’ language is more than a form of communication; it is the voice of the land, it connects us to the land, to our ancestors, our spirituality, and is embedded with a richness of traditional knowledge nurturing biodiversity.”1 This is also her point of departure in this contribution, and the reader can be mindful of the theme of language as identity, which underlies the destructiveness of colonialism and which makes language such a crucial element of Indigenous self-determination.

           Language is particularly important to the rebuilding of identity beyond colonial narratives of Indigeneity. This gives rise to the need Ellen Gabriel identifies for grassroots initiatives and for first-language speakers. Other Indigenous commentators have written on the cultural and health benefits resulting from community-led language revitalization initiatives, and the challenges to funding them. Indigenous language scholar Dr. Onowa McIvor highlights language’s key place in Indigenous identity in her studies on early-childhood language immersion. “Language is a main link to identity, both personal and collective,”2 she writes. She also points out the benefits for a person’s personal sense of identity, as well as for the larger health and prosperity of an Indigenous culture, when children are able to learn their ancestral languages from a young age, within their communities, in programs such as language nests. At the same time, funding for such programs can be difficult to obtain. As Haida language educator Jaskwaan Bedard highlights, there is a lack of trust on the part of government agencies for homegrown initiatives, despite their demonstrated success.³

          Canada’s Indigenous languages are still at risk of extinction.  As Gabriel also emphasizes, however, these languages have been resilient in the face of oppression in the past, and we are thankful for her contributions to raising awareness of language as one of the “pillars” of Indigenous identity and as a vital part of Indigenous self-determination.

¹ Ellen Gabriel, Presentation to the 15th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, May 2016.
² Onowa McIvor, “Building the Nests: Indigenous Language Revitalization in Canada Through Early Childhood Immersion Programs”, Master’s Thesis, University of Victoria (2005) at 11.
³ Emilee Gilpin, “For This Haida Speaker, a Call to Learn and a Call to Teach” in The Tyee (28 Jul 2017), online.

Ellen Gabriel.jpg
Photo by Alan Lissner

The State of Canada’s Indigenous Languages by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel

For Indigenous peoples, as for most peoples, language is more than a mode of expression: it is rich with traditional knowledge; it ties us to the spirit, values and mindsets of previous generations, the concepts behind idioms, and the roots of words’ origins; it is embedded with a peoples’ cosmology and heritage and it is a key factor in the promotion of self-esteem, as it strengthens identity.

Learning about the inter-relationship and linkage between language and identity provides greater insight into understanding how colonial assimilation has impacted the very pillars of Indigenous identity, a key component being language.  The process of reconciliation demands the restitution and restoration of all the institutions and pillars of Indigenous identity that have been attacked by colonial assimilation and which remain under threat.

The inter-generational indoctrination of Indigenous peoples with the colonizers’ religion, education and values implemented through corrosive and coercive economic policies were weapons used to assault Indigenous peoples’ identity, self-determination and sovereignty.  Settlers used oppressive, racist Church laws, and doctrines of superiority such as the Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius, to justify the genocidal assault which founds the prosperity of colonial states. This included the goal and consequential result of Indigenous peoples’ land dispossession.

However, our languages and identity have survived colonialism thanks to the resiliency and courage of generations of Indigenous peoples who were forced to clandestinely keep our languages, ceremonies, cultures, and environmental philosophies alive.  We owe a great debt of gratitude to our ancestors who bore the brunt of colonial oppression in Indian Residential Schools (IRS) and who kept our Indigenous identities alive. It is incredible that Indigenous children in Indian Residential Schools were unknowingly at the forefront of a resistance that has given us our teachings, languages and cultures of today.  Sadly, some never recovered from their experiences of the IRS. Others held on to fragments of their Indigeneity within the schools; some by walking to the edge of the fence line of the Residential school to speak their languages, while others relearned their languages upon their return home. A rare few were sent into the bush to live with relatives, where they were cleverly hidden by their parents from the RCMP who routinely kidnapped Indigenous children from their homes to force them to Indian Residential Schools.

The last IRS closed in 1996, but the effects of residential school are still felt today through apathetic attitudes by many community members who see our ancient languages, culture, customs and governance as relics of a past era.  And so, the challenges of keeping our ancient languages alive and healthy are immense. These challenges include the lack of sufficient funding at early stages, for any kind of language revitalization and its essential curricula; exhaustive reporting requirements commonly attached to project funding, and lack of recurring funding for language revitalization. There are also huge discrepancies between the amount of funding granted for children to learn French or English and funding granted for children to learn Indigenous languages.7

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports on Indigenous languages and cultures globally. In 1996 it stated that “Canada’s Aboriginal languages are among the most endangered in the world.”8 It was estimated by UNESCO in 2008 that of the 6,000 plus languages spoken in the world today, 90% will become extinct by the end of this century. Three quarters of these languages are Indigenous languages.9

In order for the public to understand the importance of the link between language and identity, it is essential to understand all the factors that have contributed to the current threats to Indigenous languages.  The continuity of the colonization/assimilation of Indigenous peoples is manifested in Canada’s Official Languages Act, which recognizes French and English as the founding languages.  Indigenous languages are considered only an “asset”, not an essential part of the dynamic diversity of peoples on Turtle Island; like the Buffalo, our languages are seen as relics of the past, placed on the margins of priorities.

Yet when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was assigning his cabinet, his mandate10 to Minister Melanie Joly for the French language was to “[e]stablish a free, online service for learning and retaining English and French as second languages”.  This is stronger support than that provided for the Indigenous languages regarding which Joly is mandated to work “in collaboration with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to provide new funding to promote, preserve and enhance Indigenous languages and cultures.”

The subtleties of what this means may be lost on those unaware of how the language Government uses influences public perceptions, and relieves them of their human rights obligations.  In an era of ‘reconciliation’ where the government issues public statements that they will implement UNDRIP, one would assume that all is well and that election promises are being kept.  However, nothing could be further from the truth. It is the same old ‘smoke and mirrors’ used to lie to Indigenous peoples for centuries11; we have had many empty promises propped up by purported Parliamentary process, the next election rush; and this long list of lies which are professed as the truth, have become the norm.  This norm includes assimilation policies and programs that pressure impoverished communities to fight over benefits and resources. This is a symptom of oppression and colonization and it is difficult to undo.

The health of Indigenous peoples relies on understanding their own histories; ie. legends, cultures, and most importantly, revitalizing the languages of our ancestors to retrieve the traditional knowledge embedded in our ancient languages such as our cosmology, science, and knowledge of our origins.

Indigenous languages form the bedrock of continuity for the survival and well being of Indigenous cultures from one generation to the next. This important inter-generational responsibility has been severely disrupted by colonialism and colonial practices, laws, policies and practices of discrimination, assimilation, forced relocation, residential and boarding schools among others.”12

Within many realms of academia, and within fora of the United Nations, the term ‘culture’ is often used to include languages, but this is a great misunderstanding.  Those who are unaware of the historical impacts of colonization upon Indigenous peoples place these two distinct parts of Indigenous identity together, creating a flawed approach to the health of Indigenous languages.  Culture and language do meet and are inter-related; but at this juncture in which Indigenous languages are threatened, it is imperative to make the distinction, at least for the time, since one can practice culture without knowing or speaking their language.  Therefore, specific efforts must focus solely on language.

Those heading language learning, retention and perpetuation efforts should be the front-line workers whose dedication and passion for language transfer persist even in the face of receiving very little funding.  It cannot be bureaucrats or politicians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, who are spear heading this movement for Indigenous languages. It is our first language speakers who understand the intricacies of our languages who are our experts, as they are the ones who have taught for decades and understand what is required to learn and retain our languages in a global society.  We are in some respects rebuilding the mindset of our peoples to be eager to learn our ancient languages and informing them that the current state of our languages is quite critical.

A language is only considered healthy if children and youth are speaking it at home and if they hear it being spoken throughout the community in all forms and activities.  Then they see how important it is to their role models and their parents. Children learn by example, so adults who speak our languages must be aware of how important language is to reinforcing children and youths’ identity.

There is often an assumption by the public and international community that Canada ‘takes care of’ all the needs of Indigenous peoples, including our cultural, social and economic rights. However, regarding the Indigenous peoples whose pillars of their identity have been perpetually attacked, such as our languages, cultures, customs, traditional knowledge, medicines, traditional forms of government, and continue to suffer land dispossession, it can be concluded that on-going colonization remains our greatest threat.

Canada’s answer to the impacts of the IRSS is to impose a criterion of ‘self-government’, which has us mirroring municipal governments; another form of assimilation. This reduces Indigenous peoples’ self-determination to colonial parameters, to act solely as municipalities and not as nations.  This approach still uses the colonial praxis as the basis of our relationship, with Canada insisting on non-recurring project funding to help us revitalize our threatened languages.

“Nation to nation” relationships with Indigenous peoples call for real self-determination of Indigenous peoples: the ability to set restore our institutions devastated by colonization and to be nations with authority over every aspect of our socio-economic human rights, to protect our lands, resources and our languages.  It should not be Canadian federalism with its Treasury Board gatekeepers who control our 1886 Trust Fund13 through programs from Canadian Heritage or other federal and provincial departments, providing “piece meal” funding. These types of supposed ‘support’ require exhaustive reporting mechanisms burdening the small pool of human resources of Indigenous communities.  Small Indigenous communities often have 1 to 3 persons trying to implement a program comprised of language classes, writing proposals, monthly expense reports and activity reports, and trying to stay ahead of the game by finding out what will be the new criteria will arrive for the next fiscal year. Even National Aboriginal Organizations, such as the Assembly of First Nations, with large numbers of staff, face many challenges of jumping through hoops designed by government bureaucrats. In general, it is exhausting for Indigenous communities to keep up such monumental efforts.

Furthermore, Indigenous communities face many social problems which are rooted in colonialism, further marginalizing Indigenous language revitalization. For example, the attitude is that to get a job, youth must learn to speak French or English.  The Cultural Centers have been at the forefront of curriculum development in our Indigenous languages and in teaching the languages to community members. On the front line of language revitalization have been mostly women, many of whom created curricula themselves (since none existed before). If a community is fortunate enough to have a community radio station, that helps a great deal. Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s White Paper14 policy reflected his statement that “if you no longer speak your language, or practice your culture, then you will have become assimilated”.

This is the scary part as many people think that they can get their education first then learn their languages.  However, as time progresses, we are losing more first language speakers who thoroughly understand the subtle nuisances of our languages and who are able to recognize the traditional knowledge embedded within the languages. The real experts on Indigenous languages are not the linguists or academics or policy makers; it is the first language speakers and the people of the community who will restore our language to its rightful place as we set upon rebuilding our nations.

Canada is currently working on legislation for Indigenous languages using its age old colonial process of engagement and/or consultations.  This means privately held meetings with leaders of the five National Aboriginal Organizations15 where only reports of these discussions are shared. This approach leaves grass-root teachers and first language speakers, who dedicated their lives to saving our languages, on the sidelines.

Revitalization of Indigenous languages requires more financial support, the recruitment of new speakers, the youth, more support for Indigenous language immersion schools, curricula that emphasizes the culture of Indigenous peoples, their history, cosmology and customs. It requires a change in attitude within Indigenous communities to see our languages as gifts and a tool to help us – decolonize, survive climate change and overcome the negative effects of colonization and genocide.

We must be guided by Indigenous first language speakers and allow them to lead our efforts.  Our languages are heard here in the community, they cannot be found in other countries or continents like French and English can.  And so, like any relationship, it must be forged in trust of our elders who are first language speakers, and we must hear children and youth using our languages, in every part of their daily lives.  Commodifying the language is not the answer, but we can examine the implementation of UNDRIP to help as a restorative framework of reconciliation amongst ourselves in order for the language to emerge as the foundation upon which all else of self-determination is formed.

Skén:nen – in peace


7 The First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres has estimated that there is approximately $2 to $4 given per Indigenous child annually for Indigenous language revitalization, but for children to learn French or English there is approximately $2500 to $2800 per child.

8 Assembly of First Nations, Factsheet, “Language and Culture”(2017) at 1, online.

9 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Factsheet, “UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Programme”, online.

10 Office of the Prime Minister, Minister of Canadian Heritage Mandate Letter (12 November 2015), online.

11 See e.g. Royal Proclamation, 1763, RSC 1985, App II, No 1.

12 Recommendations of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, International expert group meeting on the theme “Indigenous languages: preservation and revitalization (articles 13, 14 and 16 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples)”, Report on the 15th session, New York, 9-20 May 2016.

13 The Trust Fund for Indigenous (then “Indian”) peoples is derived from the royalties for the minerals and resources taken from our traditional territories; see former Auditor General Sheila Frazer’s audit report.

14 See Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian policy (The White Paper, 1969), online.

15AFN, MNC, and ITK are the three main Aboriginal organizations that are always ‘consulted’, along with secondary roles for NWAC and FNCCEC.

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