Many of the Indigenous languages once spoken in the land now called Canada, also referred to as Turtle Island by some Indigenous groups, have disappeared through a mixture of nation extinction, forced language suppression, official policies of cultural eradication, and the passage of time.
Efforts are increasing to protect the languages that remain, and the federal government has promised a bill to help work towards their survival, but for many languages the situation is critical — and in some cases, it may be too late.
"The number of fluent speakers is going down," Tracey Herbert, CEO of First Peoples' Cultural Council (FPCC) in British Columbia, told HuffPost Canada by phone. In B.C., for example, only about four per cent of Indigenous people fluently speak their language, Herbert said, and most of those speakers are over the age of 65.
"There's a lot of urgency to document these languages and to put that documentation in the hands of communities," she said.
Under UNESCO's endangered languages criteria, more than two-thirds of the more than 70 Indigenous languages still spoken in Canada are endangered, and the rest are vulnerable.
According to the 2016 census, many of these languages are spoken by less than 10,000 people, and some by only hundreds. Overall, there are 260,550 speakers of Indigenous languages in Canada, according to Statistics Canada — less than one per cent of the total Canadian population.
"The situation is urgent, and in some places and in some communities I would say it's at a crisis point," Jill Scott, a professor and settler scholar at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. who has studied Indigenous languages and language preservation, told HuffPost Canada by phone.
Challenges in language preservation
Sometimes the challenge comes not in a lack of knowledge about the language, but in long-held stigmas tied to its use.
The intergenerational trauma of residential schooling, where Indigenous languages were actively suppressed as a matter of policy, is a significant factor in their decline, Herbert said.
Young Indigenous children were punished, often severely, for using their mother tongues, and that led to a loss of the languages — and the culture and nationhood integral to them — for the next generations, she said. "They protected their children by not sharing the language for fear that they would have a similar experience."
There is now a generation of Indigenous people, including Herbert's own mother, called silent speakers, Herbert said: they understand the language fully, but trauma and stigma mean they cannot bring themselves to speak it.
FPCC works with silent speakers using Cognitive behavioural therapy that has been successful in pilot programs and will expand, she said.
There are also logistical concerns, Scott said. There is a need for resources in Indigenous languages — textbooks, for example, or dictionaries — but with language learning at various levels also a priority, sometimes all the needed work cannot get done.
Successes and future work
Despite the challenges, there are positive developments in Indigenous language preservation in Canada.
According to the census data referenced above, the number of people in Canada who could speak an Indigenous language has grown by 3.1 per cent since 2006. And the number of people who reported being able to speak an Indigenous language was higher than the number who reported having an Indigenous mother tongue, Statistics Canada said, which indicates that people, especially young people, are now learning Indigenous languages later in life.
Many young parents are making it a priority to teach their children Indigenous languages, Herbert said, and young adults are finding success in FPCC's mentor-apprentice program, which involves 900-1000 hours of immersion learning.
"I think it's been one of our most successful programs in creating new speakers," Herbert said. New speakers are coming out of the program, and some are continuing their language learning into academics or teaching.
The FPCC and the National Research Council of Canada signed an agreement this year on upgrades to FPCC's FirstVoices Language Tutor software, which is used for Indigenous language learning. FPCC offers a variety of language-learning opportunities, including a language and culture camp and mentor-apprentice opportunities.
In December 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government would develop an Indigenous Languages Act to support the revitalization of Indigenous languages. Trudeau said the act would be developed with Indigenous people in Canada, and the process of writing this legislation has begun.
This summer, the Canadian government will hold public engagement sessions on the proposed First Nations, Inuit, and Métis languages legislation. The government has already worked with Indigenous language practitioners and experts, and the upcoming sessions will allow Indigenous people to provide their feedback directly.
How Canadians can help
Canadians who want to help Indigenous communities' work to preserve their languages can do so by supporting and amplifying the work being done by Indigenous people, Scott said.
For starters, they can donate to local groups that promote language learning and preservation; they can engage in political advocacy alongside and in support of Indigenous groups — not on their behalf, but by following Indigenous people when asked in what that work should look like; and they can support Indigenous authors and publishers while also providing valuable resources by purchasing and donating Indigenous language books for schools and libraries.
Also, they can contact their elected officials to express their support for measures like the Indigenous Languages Act. Local measures like signage with local Indigenous languages in public areas are also valuable, Herbert said, and can be implemented at the municipal level.
"We're talking about a collective cultural heritage that comes from a land we call Canada," Herbert said of Indigenous languages. "We can't allow that heritage to be lost."
For more information:
Strong Nations sells and publishes Indigenous books in a variety of languages, for all age groups.
Friendship centres across the country provide a variety of Indigenous-centred resources and programs, including language learning.
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