British Columbia

B.C. should give its 34 Indigenous languages official status, advocates say

Advocates in B.C. say much more needs to be done to invigorate Indigenous languages in a province that is largely English speaking.

Government says $50M funding for language revitalization already shows strong commitment

Helen Haig-Brown said co-directing Edge of the Knife made her recognize the challenges of casting and production and the extra supports needed for a feature film done entirely in an Indigenous language. (David Strongman)

An Indigenous language renaissance is happening in Canada, according to those pushing to preserve and revive the original lexicons of First Nations.

From Jeremy Dutcher's Polaris Prize-winning debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, sung entirely in Wolostoq, to Edge of the Knife, a feature film spoken in two Haida dialects, Indigenous languages are receiving an increasing amount of exposure.

But advocates in B.C. say there's much more work to be done to invigorate these endangered languages.

"My grandmother only spoke Tsilhqot'in and my mother was bilingual and it was my generation where that began to shift," said Helen Haig-Brown, co-director of Edge of the Knife.

"Even in my territory [where there are many speakers], anyone younger than me, the majority don't speak the language. That was a pretty big dawning for me," she said.

From left, John Frantz, director of photography and producer; Helen Haig-Brown, Tsilhqot’in director; and Gwaai Edenshaw, Haida director of Edge of the Knife. Haig-Brown worries about the current number of Indigenous language speakers in B.C. (Helen Haig-Brown)

All 34 languages in B.C. endangered

There are currently 34 Indigenous languages in B.C. and all of them are critically endangered.

The First Peoples' Cultural Council thinks it would help to have all of them recognized as official languages.

"It is a very useful strategy to raise the profile and create awareness of the original languages of these lands," said  Aliana Parker, the language programs manager at FPCC.

Parker says that doesn't mean government officials would have to learn or speak the languages, nor that they would need to be printed on the back of a cereal box, for example.

Rather, she says, the recognition would promote legislation for funding and policy supports for Indigenous languages. It could also mean more opportunities for inserting optional Indigenous language programs in schools.

Purely symbolic? 

It's a big ask to make so many languages official — but not impossible.

In 2014, Alaska's state legislature approved a bill making 20 Native languages on a par with English.

The Northwest Territories recognizes 11 languages, nine of them Indigenous.

Indigenous Hawaiian was recognized as the official state language of Hawaii in 1978.

But some say making a language official is mainly symbolic.

"Just because a language becomes official, that doesn't mean that everyone is speaking the Hawaiian language," said Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla, an assistant professor in the department of language and literacy education at the University of British Columbia. 

Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla, an assistant professor in the department of language and literacy education at the University of British Columbia, says language nests can help revitalize Indigenous languages. (Submitted by Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla )

She said a number of efforts in Hawaii (which many Hawaiians spell as "Hawaiʻi"), including preschool "language nests," immersion and university programs, helped revitalize the language.

In language nests, children are exposed to an Indigenous language extensively. In 1984, Hawaii began using the program, which has helped increase the number of speakers dramatically. 

In 1983, the number of speakers of Hawaiian was estimated at 1,500. According to the state of Hawaii, in 2016, 18,400 people above age five spoke Hawaiian at home.

Painful damage to undo 

There are currently no official languages in British Columbia. 

Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser said his government is not having any discussions about adding Indigenous ones. 

But he pointed to the $50 million the B.C. government committed to Indigenous languages over the next three years.

It is the largest commitment to Indigenous languages a provincial or federal government has ever made in Canada.

For Fraser, language revitalization means healthy communities.

"The whole mandate of the residential school system was to strip away culture, the very identity of the kids going there," Fraser said.

"We recognize that was wrong on every level and it caused a lot of lasting damage to communities, and we understand that healthy communities are part of a healthy province and that's what we are working toward," he added.

Kids listen to each other count in the Tlingit language as part of a 'language nest' at the Haa Yatx'i Hidi early childhood education centre at Carcross/Tagish First Nation in Yukon. (Max Leighton)

The FPCC says the $50 million investment is a good start but not enough to sustain language revitalization needed in the province. 

For Haig-Brown, even seemingly simple solutions aren't so easy. 

"I would press anyone who is a speaker to just always speak," she said.

"With that said, I know that [carries] some internal battles because we are having to undo pretty painful damage around enforcing people to not speak their languages, through punishment, shaming and violence. So, when learning language, we are also having to undo that."

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Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.