Aboriginal Languages in the Forging of a Covenant of Reconciliation

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(Disponible en français : Les langues autochtones dans l’édification d’un pacte de réconciliation)

1. Calls to Action on Aboriginal languages from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

In its final report tabled in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) notes that the suppression of Aboriginal languages was a core element of the assimilationist policies in effect in residential schools in the 19th and 20th centuries (although the government of Canada now uses the term “Indigenous”, “aboriginal” is used throughout the text to reflect the vocabulary used by the TRC in its final report). The TRC concludes that residential schools “were a key component of a Canadian government policy of cultural genocide.”

The consequences of these assimilationist policies are still being felt today. The 2011 Census of Canada reveals that most of the 60 Aboriginal languages reported are in danger of disappearing. Only three languages – Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway – are said to be viable in that each has a mother-tongue population of more than 20,000.

The TRC identified the revitalization of Aboriginal languages as an essential element for forging a covenant of reconciliation or a new pact with the Government of Canada. Of the many calls to action it addressed to the Government, five deal with Aboriginal languages.

On the legislative front, the TRC is asking the Government of Canada to draft education legislation that would protect the right to use Aboriginal languages in credit courses.

It also calls on the government to incorporate Aboriginal language rights into the rights generally held by Indigenous persons, and advocates the adoption of an Aboriginal Languages Act. It does not, however, specify what legal status should be given to these languages.

In terms of management, the TRC recommends the creation of an Aboriginal languages commissioner.

Finally, on the cultural front, the TRC calls on the Government of Canada to provide the CBC/Radio-Canada with adequate funding to produce programming that broadcasts in Aboriginal languages and reflects the diversity of those languages.

Sources: Map prepared by Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2016, using data from Statistics Canada. 2011 Census of Population, Catalogue no. 98-314-XCB2011055 (Accessed November 17, 2016); Statistics Canada. Federal Electoral District Boundary File, 2011 Census, Catalogue no. 92-171-X. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1. Contains information licensed under Statistics Canada Open License Agreement.

Sources: Map prepared by Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2016, using data from Statistics Canada. 2011 Census of Population, Catalogue no. 98-314-XCB2011055 (Accessed November 17, 2016); Statistics Canada. Federal Electoral District Boundary File, 2011 Census, Catalogue no. 92-171-X. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1. Contains information licensed under Statistics Canada Open License Agreement.

2. Overview of the Government of Canada’s commitment to Aboriginal languages

In 2010, Canada issued a statement of support on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration), which includes language provisions. Again, in May 2016, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) announced that Canada supports the Declaration without qualification.

The Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs’ Mandate Letter establishes as a top priority the implementation of the TRC’s calls to action, starting with that of the Declaration. Furthermore, the Minister of Canadian Heritage’s Mandate Letter specifies that the Minister is to provide new funding to promote and preserve Indigenous languages and cultures. The Minister responded to this request by confirming that a strategy to support various Indigenous cultures and languages would be developed in 2017.

To that end, the 2016 federal budget anticipates investments of $275 million over five years to promote, preserve and enhance Indigenous languages and culture, as well as $5 million per year for the Aboriginal Languages Initiative (ALI) to extend that program’s funding to 2016–2017. Created in 1998, ALI supports community initiatives aimed at the revitalization of Aboriginal languages. Between 2009–2010 and 2013–2014, $18.6 million was paid out under this component of the Aboriginal Peoples’ Program.

3. Parliamentary initiatives

Two legislative initiatives have been put forward by individual parliamentarians in relation to Aboriginal language rights. On 9 December 2015, Senator Serge Joyal tabled Bill S-212, An Act for the advancement of the aboriginal languages of Canada and to recognize and respect aboriginal language rights. The bill is intended to set out the Government of Canada’s commitment on the advancement of Aboriginal languages and respect for Aboriginal language rights.

On 21 April 2016, Romeo Saganash, MP, tabled Bill C-262, An Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This bill would require the Government of Canada to take initiatives with regard to the use of Aboriginal languages in the public domain, education and the media.

4. Policy tools and the vitality of Aboriginal languages: the case of the Inuit

 Data from the National Household Survey, 2011 show that, among Aboriginal peoples, a higher proportion of Inuit have maintained their mother tongue and can conduct a conversation in an Aboriginal language.

Table 1: Proportion of Inuit, First Nations and Métis for Selected Aboriginal Language Indicators, 2011

Indicator Inuit First Nations Métis
Reported an Aboriginal language as mother tongue 58.7% 18.7% 1.8%
Reported an ability to conduct a conversation in an Aboriginal language 63.3% 22.4% 2.5%
Reported speaking an Aboriginal language most often at home 45.9% 10.3% 0.7%
Reported not being able to conduct a conversation in their Aboriginal mother tongue, although they could still understand it 2.5% 7.6% 12%

Source: Statistics Canada, Aboriginal peoples and language. National Household Survey (NHS), 2011.

These data can be seen in part as the results of language policy instruments put in place in Inuit Nunangat, the homeland of the Inuit of Canada. Inuit Nunangat includes the communities located in the four Inuit regions of Nunatsiavut (northern coastal Labrador), Nunavik (northern Quebec), the territory of Nunavut and the Inuvialuit region of the Northwest Territories (NWT).

Sources: Map prepared by Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2016, using data from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Inuit Nunagaat Simplified. Scale not given. “Maps of Inuit Nunangat (Inuit Regions of Canada)”. (Accessed December 12, 2016); Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). Inuit Communities Location. Gatineau, Quebec: INAC, 2016. Statistics Canada. Boundary Files, 2011 Census, Catalogue no. 92-160-X. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1. Contains information licensed under Statistics Canada Open License Agreement and Open Government Licence - Canada.

Sources: Map prepared by Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2016, using data from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Inuit Nunagaat Simplified. Scale not given. “Maps of Inuit Nunangat (Inuit Regions of Canada)”. (Accessed December 12, 2016); Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). Inuit Communities Location. Gatineau, Quebec: INAC, 2016. Statistics Canada. Boundary Files, 2011 Census, Catalogue no. 92-160-X. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1. Contains information licensed under Statistics Canada Open License Agreement and Open Government Licence – Canada.

Adopted pursuant to a land claims agreement, the Nunatsiavut Constitution Act – the regional Inuit government – affirms that Inuttut, a dialect of Inuktitut, is the primary language, and that Inuttut and English are the official languages of the Government of Nunatsiavut and the Inuit community governments.

The Inuit languages do not have official status in Quebec, but the preamble to the Charter of the French Language (the Charter) recognizes the right of “the Amerinds and the Inuit of Québec” to preserve and develop their original language and culture. Furthermore, sections 87 and 88 of the Charter guarantee certain rights associated with the language of instruction and school management.

When it was created in 1999, Nunavut established the position of Languages Commissioner, and, in 2008, it adopted the Official Languages Act for Nunavut, which recognizes Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun, English and French as the official languages of the territory. In 2013, it adopted the Inuit Language Protection Act, the first legislative instrument in Canada devoted to protecting and revitalizing an Aboriginal language.

The Official Languages Act of the NWT came into effect in 1990. It recognizes 11 official languages, including 9 Aboriginal languages, 3 of them Inuit languages. These languages have equality of status in the Legislative Assembly and NWT government institutions. The territorial government has created the Aboriginal Languages Secretariat. The NWT also has an Official Languages Policy, Aboriginal Languages Revitalization Board Regulations, and an Aboriginal Languages Plan. The territory also appointed a Languages Commissioner to ensure respect for linguistic rights and protection of official languages.

Additional resources

Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada, The languages of Nunavut: A delicate balance, 5 April 2013.

Langlois, Stéphanie, and Annie Turner, Aboriginal Languages and Selected Vitality Indicators in 2011, Statistics Canada – Catalogue no. 89-655-X – No. 001, 16 October 2014.

Langlois, Stéphanie, Aboriginal peoples and language. National Household Survey (NHS), 2011, Statistics Canada – Catalogue no. 99-011-X2011003, 2013.

Norris, Mary Jane, “Aboriginal languages in Canada: Emerging trends and perspectives on second language acquisition,” Statistics Canada – Catalogue no. 11-008, Canadian Social Trends, June 2007.

Norris, Mary Jane. “Canada’s Aboriginal Languages,” Statistics Canada – Catalogue No 11-008, Canadian Social Trends, Winter 1998.

Author: Lucie Lecomte, Library of Parliament