Constitutional challenge looks to revive aboriginal languages
Ottawa should provide immersion schooling and public services in ancestral languages, say some experts
The same section of the Constitution that enshrines First Nations treaties should, according to a growing number of legal experts and academics, also grant aboriginal people in Canada the right to schooling and public services in their ancestral languages.
"Unless we do something in this generation — the generation of my daughter — the languages will die," says Lorena Fontaine, an assistant professor of indigenous studies at the University of Winnipeg.
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Fontaine and Toronto lawyer David Leitch are preparing a constitutional challenge that argues aboriginal people have the right to be taught in their own, often endangered languages under Section 35 of the Constitution.
Section 35 guarantees aboriginal treaties, but has also been interpreted to protect customs, practices and traditions integral to aboriginal culture, which she says should include language.
If you're the prime minister of Canada you can do things pretty quickly.— David Leitch
"We have the right to use and develop these languages in institutions that we create," says Fontaine, who is also a PhD student in history, peace and conflict studies and law at the University of Manitoba.
Leitch says aboriginal languages should be awarded "similar consideration" to French and English, which he says tend to dominate talk about language rights in Canada.
He would rather not have to take the case to court, and hopes the government will instead address the issue as it follows up on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
"If you're the prime minister of Canada you can do things pretty quickly," says Leitch, adding that Justin Trudeau's commitment to implementing the calls to action in the TRC report is a positive sign.
'Fundamental and valued'
The TRC's final report said the federal government has a responsibility to provide sufficient funds for aboriginal-language revitalization and preservation.
It also said aboriginal languages are a "fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society."
It's estimated that there were once about 200 aboriginal languages spoken across North America. According to the 2011 census, there are currently 63 spoken in Canada and most are expected to become extinct by the end of this century.
Only three are likely to survive — Ojibwe, Cree and Inuktitut.
"Language is everything that we are," says Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who happens to be Lorena Fontaine's uncle.
"If you don't know your language, then it is difficult to understand in a profound way who you are."
$2.6B on education
The Fontaines and Leitch were among 70 scholars, lawyers and activists who gathered at Glendon College of Toronto's York University in February to draft a declaration demanding the federal government recognize aboriginal language rights and fully commit to the TRC's recommendations.
They plan to send it to politicians and academics across the country in the coming months.
We wouldn't dare speak Cree.— Doris Young
In a statement to CBC News, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said it will spend $2.6 billion on education, including language support, over the next five years.
It also said the federal government will within months announce details about "the way forward" in First Nations education.
The loss of aboriginal languages is directly linked to Canada's residential school program, under which indigenous children were removed from their homes and severely punished for speaking their mother tongue.
"We wouldn't dare speak Cree," says Lorena Fontaine's mother, 75-year-old Doris Young, of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba. She and her identical twin sister were three years old when they were removed from their home and sent to an English residential school.
"If you were caught, you were punished. It was like you were committing crimes."
Young had 14 siblings. Their father, John Young, would hide a couple of children a year at a time out on the family trapline to immerse them in their language and culture — though this was illegal under the Indian Act.
The trauma of residential schools prevented many parents in her generation from passing along the language to the next.
"That shame we carry with us, of not being able to teach our children the language, and then the shame of being punished when we were speaking only Cree. We're at a point where we need to confront that," says Young.
Good legal case
Some say supporting language programs could help heal those wounds.
"I think we have a moral obligation to repair some of the harm done from the racist policies that existed in the past," says Fernand de Varennes, dean of law at the University of Moncton and an expert in minority language rights.
"And one way is to try to repair it is through support of language programs."
De Varennes says there is a good legal case to be made under Section 35 that would oblige the federal government to provide immersion schools and public services in indigenous languages in communities where there's a significant population speaking such languages.
"I think there is no valid basis for denying this should be in place," he says.