Indigenous Language Revitalization in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Indigenous Language Revitalization in Canada

Before European settlement in Canada, Indigenous peoples spoke a wide variety of languages. As a means of assimilating Indigenous peoples, colonial policies like the Indian Act and residential schools forbade the speaking of Indigenous languages. These restrictions have led to the ongoing endangerment of Indigenous languages in Canada. Indigenous communities and various educational institutions have taken measures to prevent more language loss and to preserve Indigenous languages.

Brief History

Many Indigenous languages in Canada are endangered. This resulted from a history of restrictive colonial policies. They prohibited the speaking of these mother tongues. In an attempt to assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society, the Indian Act and residential schools forced Indigenous people to abandon their languages. Residential school students caught speaking these languages were punished. Even after these schools were shut down, loss of language knowledge and the fear of speaking Indigenous languages lingered. This inhibited the passing of these languages from one generation to the next.

Linguistic Demography

In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that for about 40 Indigenous languages in Canada, there are only about 500 speakers or less. This number does not distinguish between fluent and learning speakers. As a result, the number of fluent language speakers of any particular Indigenous language might be less. There has been some improvement. Statistics Canada revealed that 260,550 Indigenous people reported the ability to speak an Indigenous language. This represents a 3.1 per cent increase from 2006.

In 2016, Algonquian languages had the highest speaking population (175,825), followed by Cree (96,575) and Ojibwe (28,130). In 2016, the number of Indigenous people able to speak an Indigenous language exceeded those who reported an Indigenous mother tongue. According to Statistics Canada, this suggests an increase in the number of new speakers and language learners. This is especially among youth. (See also Indigenous Sign Languages in Canada.)

Revitalization Efforts

Programs for learning, teaching, documenting and revitalizing Indigenous languages have been developed by various colleges and universities. For example, University of Victoria has Indigenous language revitalization programs. University of British Columbia offers the First Nations Languages Program. Yukon College has the Yukon Native Language Centre.

Communities have carried out more in-depth documentation of languages. Organizations, such as First Voice and the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, exist to support the health of Indigenous languages. Many websites have been developed to encourage language learning. one prominent example is the Michif Language Project.

In British Columbia, efforts are underway to revitalize Northern Coast Salish languages. These languages are endangered or “sleeping.” Sleeping languages are languages that do not currently have any fluent speakers. In particular, members of Qualicum First Nation, along with linguists, are working to revitalize the Pentl’ach language. The last fluent speaker of Pentl’ach passed away in the 1940s. However, Pentl’ach people are working to bring the language back. They are doing this by recording words that are known. When words are not known, they are determined by using neighbouring languages.

On 7 April 2022, the Government of Nova Scotia introduced the Mi'kmaw Language Act. This legislation enshrines the Mi'kmaq language as the province’s first language. It also supports efforts to protect and revitalize the language. The Act is seen as a step toward reconciliation. It took effect on Treaty Day, 1 October.

Indigenous Languages Act

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government would introduce a law to preserve Indigenous languages. This was announced at a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) on 6 December 2016. On 5 February 2019, the Canadian government tabled the Indigenous Languages Act. It seeks to protect and revitalize Indigenous languages in Canada.

The Act was developed in association with the AFN, Métis Nation and Department of Canadian Heritage. Largely left out of the discussions, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami pointed out some of the Act’s flaws. These include the absence of Inuit-specific content and “no federal obligation to fund Indigenous languages…[or] provide for reliable federal support.”

The Act received royal assent in July 2019. It seeks to address the Truth and Reconciliation’s Calls to Action (numbers 13, 14 and 15). It also addresses the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Peoples Collection

Indigenous Perspectives Education Guide

Further Reading

External Links