'A core part of our identity': Indigenous language law targeted for 2018

Inuit, First Nations and Métis organizations are working alongside the federal government to develop nationwide language legislation.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami wants protection for Inuit languages alongside French and English

A partnership was announced on June 15 to develop nationwide language legislation. From left, Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly, Clément Chartier, president of the Métis National Council and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Inuit, First Nations and Métis organizations are taking the next step toward protecting Indigenous languages in Canada, as they work alongside the federal government to develop a nationwide language law.

For Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), this legislation will stem the loss of traditional knowledge in Canada's Inuit communities.

"I know what it's like to have the hole, to want to be able to converse and to be a part of the society in all aspects, but can't because of that limitation," said Obed, who does not speak his Inuit language fluently.

"There are many Inuit that feel similar to me," Obed said. "It's our right; this is the way that we present to the world. This is the way we transmit our knowledge."

Kindergarten students Haley Akavak and Nikolas Firman take turns learning Inuktitut with a language app at Iqaluit's Nakasuk School. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Obed will work with the federal government to develop a new bill on behalf of the ITK, and alongside the Assembly of First Nations and the Métis Nation. The partnership was announced last week in Ottawa with the leaders of the organizations and the minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly.

The heritage minister will work directly with each of the organizations representing First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

"The Inuit reality is very different from First Nations and Métis," Obed said. "We don't want legislation that is pan-Indigenous."

Canada doesn't have a federal Indigenous languages act, and this would be the first step toward creating measures for their protection and promotion. The development of a languages law was initially announced in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's 2015 mandate letter to the heritage minister.

The expected law will also support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Nunavut as an example

Nunavut is the only territory with a language protection act, which can serve as an example for the federal bill.

"It is not creating language rights. Our Indigenous language rights exist, whether the government accommodates them or not, but it's getting to a place where government is accommodating," said Obed.

In the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, only 20 per cent of Inuvialuit reported being able to speak their Inuit language. 

Percentage of Inuit with the capacity to speak Inuktut, which includes Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun, by region. (Heritage Canada)

In Labrador, where Obed grew up, that figure is 25 per cent.

Still, Inuit languages fare well compared to other Indigenous languages, according to government statistics. The number of Inuktut speakers (Inuktut includes Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun) is second only to Cree, and about 63 per cent of Inuit are able to carry on a conversation in Inuktut.

But language erosion — as words are lost or influenced by English — and a shift away from Inuktut as a mother tongue, are putting the future of the language at risk.

Language as traditional knowledge

Obed hopes the legislation will officially recognize the language rights of Inuit, First Nations and Métis in Canada and provide services in Indigenous languages as it does in English and French.

According to Obed, this is the first step to enshrine Inuktut as important to Inuit culture and traditional knowledge.

"Our worldview is best expressed in our language," Obed said. "It is a core part of our identity."

Part of the legislation will require consultations with Inuit communities. The funding to pay for the consultations has yet to be announced from Canadian Heritage, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami will have to work quickly to consult with groups before the end of the year. A bill is expected to reach Parliament in 2018.

There are no federal Indigenous language programs or requirements to offer second-language education, as there are for English and French.

In Iqaluit, the Pirurvik Centre is unique in offering Inuktut classes to second-language learners.

"It's a long process, but without any sort of formal structure and without the money to do it, it's very unlikely that revitalization will happen across society," said Obed.

With files from Qavavao Peter