Indigenous languages in Canada are dying out at an alarming rate and in desperate need of saving, says Arif Virani, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Canadian heritage responsible for multiculturalism.
Virani is criss-crossing the country to engage with Indigenous leaders, language teachers and other stakeholders to map out a plan to save up to 90 different Indigenous dialects.
"The number of people who are identifying fluency [in their Indigenous language] is dropping dramatically, almost in half in the last 20 years," Virani said in a telephone interview during a stop last Friday in Edmonton, where he met with the Métis Nation of Alberta and Treaty 6 First Nations.
According to census data, the number of people in Canada who spoke an Aboriginal mother tongue dropped from almost 26 per cent in 1996 to 14.5 per cent in 2011.
"There's no Indigenous language that is technically safe. Every language on the scale is either unsafe or critically endangered," Virani said.
The Canadian government is developing legislation with Indigenous peoples that will be used to protect Indigenous languages in 2018.
Inuit, Métis and First Nations organizations will meet with the Ministry of Canadian Heritage in the fall to develop Indigenous languages legislation with aims to table it in Parliament in 2018.
It's a massive undertaking that has been in the works for the last several months, via which Virani said the government is heeding one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action — to acknowledge Aboriginal language rights.
"With the residential school system and the legacy of colonialism and racism that was perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in this country, what you had was an active government-sponsored effort to try and take culture and language and remove it from people in an effort to assimilate them into mainstream culture," he said.
"That was woeful and incorrect and a horrible legacy. What we're trying to do is to take steps in the right direction in reversing that legacy and moving towards something where you can re-establish and reaffirm culture and identity."
He added that along with reclamation of language comes affirmation of Indigenous identity, as well as a sense of belonging, of solidarity and of community that has a ripple effect on education outcomes, career prospects and lowering the number of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.
Integral to reconciliation, Bellegarde says
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde also stressed the need to "breathe life back into Indigenous languages" and believes it's integral to reconciliation.
"If we don't protect our languages and we lose another language — then the residential school system will have won and we don't want any of our languages to die anymore," he said.
"It's linked to self-determination, it's linked to our ceremonies and it's linked to who we are as First Nations people."
Elmer Ghostkeeper, a Michif and Bush Cree speaker from the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement in Alberta who has a master's degree in cultural anthropology, also links the decline of Indigenous languages to colonization.
"At certain times in Canada our languages had to go underground because it was illegal to practice our traditions and culture," he said.
"And language and culture go hand in hand. One of the main tools used to colonize Indigenous people was to take away our language and replace it with English."
However, Ghostkeeper said he's noticing a resurgence in Indigenous languages which have been held onto in the face of adversity by elders who refused to let go of their mother tongue.
"The elders have kept it alive and well. Now, there's more and more young people that are very interested in their Indigenous language and culture and there's a tremendous revitalization that's happening."
In its 2017 budget, the Trudeau government promised $90 million in funding to "preserve, protect and revitalize" Indigenous languages over three years. The previous Harper government provided $5 million a year for the Aboriginal Languages Initiative.
"This demonstrates that we believe in the urgency of supporting, preserving and protecting Indigenous languages. This is a step towards advancing reconciliation," said Virani.