Federal Indigenous languages act would need 'teeth' to work, say N.W.T. language advocates

'We're losing elders on a daily basis,' says Sarah Jerome, a former N.W.T. languages commissioner and one of just 400 Gwich'in language speakers, in response to a federal government promise to support the creation of an Indigenous Languages Act.

'There has to be a paradigm shift,' says Pauline Gordon

Pauline Gordon, originally from Aklavik, lost most of her native Inupiatun when she attended residential school as a child. (submitted by Pauline Gordon)

Two Indigenous language advocates in the N.W.T. are hoping the federal government will take the right steps to help preserve Indigenous languages across the country.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would support the creation of an Indigenous languages commissioner, along with new legislation to support and revitalize Indigenous languages, many of which are dwindling after generations were forcibly schooled in English or French.

Pauline Gordon of Aklavik, N.W.T., grew up speaking Inupiatun, which she learned from her mother, who was originally from Alaska. After attending residential schools in Inuvik and Fort Smith, she lost much of her fluency.

"We still understand it because my mom spoke it to us at home, but I can't speak it fluently."

Gordon is now a retired N.W.T. educator and former assistant deputy minister with the territory's department of education.

"People have to recognize that this is a first step," she said. "I think [revitalizing Indigenous languages] is going to take a lot of work."

11 official languages in N.W.T. 

The N.W.T.'s Official Languages Act recognizes 11 official languages — more than any other jurisdiction in Canada. Nine of the languages are Indigenous. 

However, according to the 2011 census, only 5,400 people in the territory say they learned an Indigenous language as their mother tongue, and only 2,400 speak it at home. Both of those numbers are in decline as fluent speakers continue to age.

That's why, according to Gordon, "the new [federal] act must have teeth."

"There has to be a paradigm shift. I think the importance of language has to be predominant in hiring, in staffing, in college programs."

She wants to see Indigenous languages given the same priority as French.

"If somebody is coming to work for a First Nations population, that person should have to learn the language of the people they're going to work with," Gordon said. 

"We have to be radicals about it now because it is just so scary to think that our languages could be lost within, maybe, 10 years."

We need our elders, says former N.W.T. languages commissioner

Sarah Jerome, a former N.W.T. languages commissioner, is mostly encouraged by the idea of federal legislation. 

Sarah Jerome is one of fewer than 400 Gwich'in language speakers in the N.W.T. (submitted by Kirsten Carthew)

"I think it will bring our First Nations across Canada together, specifically with the languages that are not being recognized right now across the provinces." 

Jerome speaks Gwich'in, one of the territory's most endangered languages, with less than 400 speakers world-wide.

"We've done work in the area of recording or elders' stories and history, so now it's a matter of training more people in the languages so they become fluent."

Jerome also stressed the importance for any Indigenous language commissioner "to have an Aboriginal language as first language."

But she says, regardless of federal legislation and future commissioner appointments, it's on her generation to pass the torch.

"We have to remember that we're losing our elders on a daily basis," she said. "It's up to people like ourselves who are retired to help out as much as we can."

with files from Loren McGinnis, Marc Winkler and Peter Sheldon