Indigenous Sign Languages in Canada

In addition to the spoken word, some Indigenous cultures historically have used sign languages to communicate. Though a small number of people know Indigenous sign languages, American Sign Language and Quebec Sign Language have largely replaced Indigenous sign languages in Canada. Efforts are underway in a variety of Indigenous communities to revitalize these lost systems of communication. (See also Deaf Culture and Indigenous Languages in Canada.)



Drawing of person displaying the sign for "sun" in Plains Indigenous Sign Language.

Variations

Plains Sign Language (PSL) (also sometimes called Plains Indigenous Sign Language) is arguably the most well-known Indigenous sign language in Canada and the United States. It is known to various First Nations that typically inhabited the Prairies, including the Cree, Dakota and Siksika. PSL was not necessarily for the deaf alone; people with full hearing capabilities also used the language to visually narrate their discussions. (See also Plains Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

Other Indigenous sign languages include Plateau Sign Language, historically used by Salish, Ktunaxa and other Plateau peoples, and Inuit Sign Language, used in the Canadian Arctic. (See also Plateau Indigenous Peoples and Inuit.)

Demographics

Though the number of people who can still communicate using an Indigenous sign language is difficult to ascertain, Darin Flynn, professor of linguistics at the University of Calgary, argues that PSL is still known by a few community members on the Plains, whereas the Plateau language is only partially known by a couple of elders. Inuit sign language fairs a little better in terms of population; according to linguistic expert Joke Schuit, the language was known by about 80 Inuit in 2012. However, American Sign Language and Quebec Sign Language have largely replaced Indigenous sign languages in Canada. (See also Deaf Culture.)


Revitalization Efforts

Efforts are underway in a variety of Indigenous communities to revitalize these lost systems of communication. For example, in 2013, deafness researcher Dr. Jamie MacDougall held a workshop for deaf Inuit as a means of promoting and preserving Inuit Sign Language. Similarly, in 2019, Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan hosted a Plains Sign Language camp that united elders, community members and language experts in a joint effort to save the language. (See also Indigenous Language Revitalization in Canada.)

Legal Protections

In 2019, the Accessible Canada Act recognized “American Sign Language, Quebec Sign Language and Indigenous sign languages…as the primary languages for communication by deaf persons in Canada.” The purpose of the Act is to promote inclusivity in areas such as goods and services industries, transportation and communication technologies.

Also in 2019, the Indigenous Languages Act aimed to “support and promote the use of Indigenous languages, including Indigenous sign languages.” Some language experts and members of the deaf community argue that, while government protection of languages is important, new legislation specific to the protection of Indigenous sign languages is welcome.


Further Reading

  • James MacDougall, “Access to Justice for Deaf Inuit in Nunavut: The Role of Inuit Sign Language,” Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne (2001), 42(1): 61–73.

  • Jeffrey Davis, “North American Indian Sign Language,” in Julie Bakken Jepsen, Goedele De Clerck, Sam Lutalo-Kiingi and William B. McGregor (eds.), Sign Languages of the World: A Comparative Handbook (2015) pp. 911–932.

External Links