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New federal legislation would preserve, promote Indigenous languages

Arif Virani

Arif Virani

Aging elders and fewer people who are fluent in Indigenous languages has First Nations communities across Canada concerned.
That’s one of the key findings of Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage Arif Virani as he meets with stakeholders.
“They’re really worried about having critically endangered Indigenous languages passing into extinction,” said Virani, who is Member of Parliament for the Parkdale-High Park federal riding.
“That’s not what we want. We want these languages to flourish again.”
Last December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada will co-develop with Indigenous people an act to preserve, protect and revitalize Indigenous languages.
The Department of Canadian Heritage along with the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Metis National Council will hold events in the coming months.
In advance of those events, Virani is participating in meetings with Indigenous languages practitioners, experts and community members.
The outreach meetings are exploring subject matters related to Indigenous languages and inform future stages of engagement.
“It’s quite important,” Virani said of preserving and promoting Indigenous languages, adding there is little time to waste.
Virani said the number of people who are fluent in their language has dropped by almost 50 per cent in the past 50 years.
At the same time, the average age of people who are fluent in the 60 to 90 Indigenous languages has climbed by about seven to 10 years in the past two decades.
“People who have the language competency are aging and there’s fewer of them around the country,” Virani said.
Those statistics have created concern among stakeholders.
There are many reasons preserving and promoting Indigenous languages is important, Virani said, including health.
As an example, Virani cited a B.C. study that showed the suicide rate is lower than the provincial average among Indigenous youth who are competent in their language.
The study showed the suicide rate was 13 out of 1,000 among people who were fluent in their language, rising to 97 out of 1,000 among Indigenous youth who are not.
“It shows you quite tangibly that people’s language skills is tied up with their cultural identity, their sense of belonging, their sense of community and that leads to better psychological, spiritual and mental well-being,” Virani said. “The evidence is quite clear on that point.”
At the Calgary meeting, Virani heard from a woman the impact Blackfoot language instruction has had on students who have been in jail and had difficulty with substance abuse.
“She’s seen them turn around in terms of their confidence and their self-esteem, and as they develop a sense of belonging and their own identity their own outcomes dramatically change. They feel more confident in who they are and comfortable in their own skin and that allows them to be more productive members of society.”
Virani started his work in Ottawa with meetings with elected officials from the First Nations and Metis groups.
Then Virani met with people in Ontario, Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, and recently in Calgary and Edmonton, before moving on to B.C. and parts of the east coast.
Virani said feedback from those meetings has varied, with some groups indicating they have sufficient materials but need help with teacher training, while some groups need help with both teachers and materials.
Discussion also focuses on models used for Indigenous language instruction, including immersion and language camps.
“The recurring theme is people want stability and predictability in terms of funding,” Virani said. “They want stability where they can plan out a three-, or four- or five-year project.”
Virani has heard from people about residential schools, where attempts were made to strip First Nations people of their culture, and where they were forbidden to speak their language.
“It’s had a lasting trauma on many of these communities and many of these groups that we’ve been consulting with,” Virani said. “The idea is to help reverse that, and allow people to recover the language that was taken from them.”
Virani said development of new languages legislation with co-operation of Indigenous people is important.
“We’re genuinely trying to get it right, and we’re not trying to dictate to Indigenous people what’s right,” Virani said. “We’re trying to hear from them what they want to see in the legislation.”
The goal is to table the new legislation in the House of Commons sometime in 2018.
“I’m encouraged by the desire I see with people to really take back their culture, to take back their language,” Virani said.

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Victor Bonspille Says:

    se,kon, my name is Victor Bonspille, and i am currently an elected Council Chief for my Mohawk community in Kanesatake, Quebec. it would be great if the PM can fulfill his promise to preserve and protect Indigenous languages and Culture in Canada. we as first Nations need to find a way to protect our Language and pass it on to our children so they can pass it on to there children. we can achieve this much easier with the help of the Prime Minister and his Promise.


    Chief Victor Bonspille.