Justin Trudeau's proposed Indigenous languages act will need teeth to succeed

The Northwest Territories has 11 official languages — nine of them Indigenous. Despite legal measures to protect them, Indigenous languages in the N.W.T., like elsewhere in Canada, are declining at an alarming rate.

With 11 official languages, N.W.T. offers a model for a federal Indigenous Languages Act. Or does it?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to speakers during a ceremony honouring Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie at the AFN Special Chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que. Last week, Trudeau announced the federal government would be proposing a Canadian Indigenous Languages Act. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government would be proposing a Canadian Indigenous Languages Act.

Few details are yet available about what this act might look like, but the Northwest Territories can perhaps shed some light on such language legislation because we have had an Official Languages Act here since 1984 that grants official status, not only to English and French, but also to nine Indigenous languages.

The act creates certain rights for citizens as well as obligations for the N.W.T. legislature and its government offices, schools, courts, health centres, election officials, boards and agencies. A person can choose the language in which they want to communicate with and participate in these institutions, subject to certain regulations.

A head office, for example, must provide services in all official languages, while community offices must do so in the local languages. Municipalities, however, are not obligated by the act to do so, nor are Indigenous organizations or the federal government.

The act grants equal rights and privileges to all official languages, but it is important to note that equality does not mean the same treatment. Imagine a baby, an elder and an athlete standing at the bottom of a staircase. Two of these people face a barrier and need special provisions to be able to meet their goal. Equality is about providing these special measures to allow everyone an equal opportunity to reach their full potential.

Is it working?

Despite all of these measures, Indigenous languages in the N.W.T. and elsewhere in Canada and the world are declining at an alarming rate.

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In the N.W.T., we can anticipate that fewer and fewer people will request government services in their language as the number of speakers decreases. This is not an indication of what people want from government, but rather, a consequence of well-meaning but ineffective measures in a very complex situation.

One might think that teaching Indigenous languages in schools can reverse this trend. However, even though the N.W.T. Education Act states that where English is the language of instruction, another official language must be taught 90 hours a year in all grades, Indigenous language school programs, for the most part, are non-existent or ineffective.

In response, people often say that for a language to be learned properly, it must be taught at home, but in the case of indigenous languages, many parents and even grandparents do not speak the language because of repressive residential school and government policies of the past. Due to these policies, Indigenous languages are experiencing severe decline, with elders now being the only fluent speakers in most communities.

Schools and government alone cannot reverse this trend; special measures are needed if these languages are to be truly preserved, developed and enhanced.

Who'll do the work?

One major part of this initiative must be language planning if this new Indigenous Languages Act is to succeed.

Often, though, language plans are no more than Christmas wish lists and funding is inadequate to support all of the initiatives that a community wants to undertake.

For this reason, language plans should always be based on not only available funding, but, more importantly, on available human resources.

Who can do the work? Who is willing to make a long-term commitment to the arduous task of reviving Indigenous languages?

What training is needed for those who want to be involved but do not yet have the necessary skills?

These are questions that need to be addressed in order to develop realistic, viable language plans.

Languages commissioner needs teeth

It will be important to identify someone to oversee the implementation of this new act. There has been some discussion about having a Commissioner of Indigenous Languages.

The N.W.T. Official Languages Act designates such a position, the Languages Commissioner, who is responsible for responding to complaints and inquiries about official language rights and privileges. The Commissioner reports findings of investigations to the legislature and makes recommendations that the legislature, in turn, forwards to the responsible government institution for action.

Often, however, government action is inadequate. A process for follow-up is key if this type of system is to be effective.

If a Commissioner of Indigenous Languages is appointed, what teeth will the Act provide?  Should the Act create rights and obligations or simply be a framework for supporting language revitalization? Will it provide for those special measures needed to truly grant equality to indigenous languages in Canada?

It is commendable that the federal government is contemplating an Indigenous Languages Act. It is concrete recognition of the dire state of  these languages and the government's responsibility for supporting their survival.

It will be a complex task to implement effective measures to turn the tide.


Betty Harnum was the N.W.T.'s first languages commissioner. She has lived in the North for 43 years and currently resides in Yellowknife.