Canada Losing Its Ancestral Languages

Katerina Virginillo

As a Canadian-born and raised citizen, I have been fortunate to learn the language my ancestors spoke. My grandmother taught me to speak and understand Greek when I was younger. Although I may not be a fluent Greek speaker, it is a crucial part of my identity. My grandmother was adamant that I learn Greek to connect to my ancestors, which is fantastic, and I am so fortunate to have that. Many Indigenous people do not have the same fortune. Their languages are dying off, not because they don’t teach it, but because Canada’s history has been chipping away at Indigenous culture and their ability to communicate as their ancestors once did.

The 2016 Aboriginal languages Census looks at the Indigenous languages spoken by Inuit, First Nations and Métis people in Canada. The data finds that less than 2% of Métis speak an Aboriginal language. Additionally, the number of Inuit peoples who speak Inuktitut as their mother tongue is more significant among elders: 90.5 % of Inuit aged 45 to 54, 68.5 % of Inuit ages 0 to 14 years, and 67.6 % of Inuit ages 0 to 4 years. According to the Census, Inuktitut, like many other native languages, is likely to be extinct within the next few generations.[1]

Why can an immigrant’s child learn Greek, whereas an Indigenous child cannot understand their language in their country of origin?

There must be recognition of Canada and its history with Indigenous peoples. After a lot of battles, diseases and death, residential schools tried to “kill the Indian to spare the child” in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. In the decades since the Residential Schools closed, the government has mounted considerable legal barriers which have aided in perpetuating intergenerational trauma and prolonged what has been described as a “cultural genocide.” This past week’s discovery of 215 dead indigenous children in an unmarked grave at Kamloops Residential School has only re-emphasized how immediate the impact of the residential schools has been and will continue to be.


Map of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Languages of North America

If we want to be the moral nation we envision ourselves to be, Canadians must act now, before Indigenous peoples lose their languages forever. As keynote speaker of the 2018 Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium at the University of Lethbridge (and member of the Miami First Nation) Leonard Wesley put it as such: “Language recognition is a way of responding to trauma. It is a way of healing and restoring the language to its rightful place.”[2] Over the last few years, citizens have been encouraging the Canadian government to create better legislation regarding indigenous peoples and their rights to teach, express and learn their culture. This sparked the creation of the Indigenous Language Act.[3] In December of 2016, the Government of Canada implemented legislation on First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages, developed in cooperation with Indigenous peoples. The Act is intended to guarantee that “the Government of Canada recognizes that the rights of Indigenous peoples recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 include rights related to Indigenous languages.”

Although the Act is ambiguous and focuses solely on Inuit and Métis languages, it is a step in the right direction. The Canadian Government continues to pass legislation and change current laws to restore indigenous culture and languages in Canada. The importance of this act is to ensure that the lessons and knowledge that Indigenous languages have to impart are not lost. For example, in Blackfoot, when you translate the verb meaning to have a relationship, it means peace, which “reflects the idea that by knowing one’s relationship and cultivating healthy relationships by building alliances, one creates peace.” (Leonard Wesley)[2]

What can you do to aid a future of peace? 

Using social media

Social media outlets can be a quick and easy way to bring awareness to a broad audience. Post your favourite Indigenous songs with the lyrics or share some interesting, fun facts about some words. 

Personal Growth 

Learn the traditional name of where you live. For instance the Mohawk word Tkaronto is the original word for Toronto, which means the place “in the water where trees are standing”, referring to the indigenous fishing technique of using sharp poles on a vertical.

Learn a greeting in the traditional language

In Iñupiaq, Uvlaami is a way of saying “good day” in English. You can challenge family members and colleagues to learn phrasing in a traditional language.

Learn an Indigenous language

Sites to help guide you on your Indigenous language journey:

Possible Apps

Dictionary

More Learning Resources

Citations 

[1] 

This Census in Brief article provides detailed information about Aboriginal languages spoken by Aboriginal people, including the regional distribution of each Aboriginal language family. Comparisons between the counts of Aboriginal language speakers and the counts of people with an Aboriginal mother tongue are provided. Results are presented for First Nations people, Métis and Inuit. (2017, October 25). Retrieved March 5, 2021, from Statcan.gc.ca website: https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016022/98-200-x2016022-eng.cfm

‌[2]

Demi Knight. (2018, June 8). Conference hopes to prevent demise of Indigenous languages in jeopardy. Retrieved March 5, 2021, from Global News website: https://globalnews.ca/news/4263812/indigenous-language-preserve-lethbridge-conference/ 

[3]

Government Bill (House of Commons) C-91 (42-1) – First Reading – Indigenous Languages Act – Parliament of Canada. (2015). Retrieved March 5, 2021, from Parl.ca website: https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/42-1/bill/C-91/first-reading  

Jean-François Lepage, Stéphanie Cloutier, & Turcotte, M. (2019, July 9). The main objective of this report is to provide a statistical overview of the recent situation of Inuktitut in Nunavut and of its speakers, based on 2016 Census data, by showing how the use of the language at home and at work has changed since 2001. This report also aims to provide information to various stakeholders who work to support the protection, promotion and revitalization of Inuktut in communities and among population segments, where its use is more limited or is declining over time. Retrieved March 5, 2021, from Statcan.gc.ca website: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-657-x/89-657-x2019010-eng.htm 

Joseph, B. (2019). Why Is It Important To Protect & Revitalize Indigenous Languages? Retrieved March 5, 2021, from Ictinc.ca website: https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/why-is-it-important-to-protect-revitalize-indigenous-languages 

Staff. (2019, February 4). New law on Indigenous languages will aim to help them “survive and thrive.” Retrieved March 5, 2021, from Global News website: https://globalnews.ca/news/4923367/indigenous-language-laws-canada-2019/ 


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