Not enough funding to cover all Indigenous language program requests, group says

There is not enough money available to cover what Saskatchewan groups want to do with Indigenous language instruction, says the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre.

Total cost of project applications 'very much in excess' of available funds

Elder McNeil McArthur oversees four young boys on a duck hunt in Saskatchewan's Pheasant Rump Nakota First Nation. McArthur used the Cree and Assiniboine languages while instructing the boys how to make their blinds and wait patiently for the ducks. (Submitted by Juanita McArthur-Big Eagle)

There is not enough money available to cover what Saskatchewan groups want to do with Indigenous language instruction.

That's the word from the Saskatoon-based Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre (SICC), which administered approximately $3 million in funding from the federal government's Aboriginal Languages Initiative for 45 projects across the province over the last two years.

SICC special projects co-ordinator Garry Anaquod said there were almost 50 applicants in the past year alone. He said the funding that was requested was "very much in excess of the amount of money that was available."

"We have to turn down really good, well-qualified applications because we just don't have the resources," he said.

The projects that were funded included language camps, train-the-trainer programs, language immersion camps, mentor-apprentice programs and language nests.

Some funds went to production and distribution of language resources such as online tools, educational materials and children's books.

All eight First Nations languages of Saskatchewan were represented in the approved projects: Plains Cree, Woodland Cree, Swampy Cree, Nakoda, Dakota, Dene, Lakota and Saulteaux.

Anaquod said language classes and language camps were the two most common projects that received funding.

But he said SICC made a point this past year of funding mentor-apprentice programs.

Anaquod said it can be difficult to assess the impact of each approach.

He said there might be 50 kids who could be impacted through a community language class as compared to a handful of people who might be impacted by a mentor-apprentice program.

"But the mentor-apprentices are going to get much more language instruction and much more quality language instruction and be much more fluent at the end of the process than a school kid who might be going one hour a week," he said.

The retention of the words went from zero phrases to two phrases after each session.- Pheasant Rump Nakota First Nation band councillor Juanita McArthur-Big Eagle

One of the projects to receive funds involved language learning through land-based activities in the Pheasant Rump Nakota First Nation.

Pheasant Rump band councillor Juanita McArthur-Big Eagle said elders fluent in the Nakoda language would teach the language to learners of all ages while demonstrating traditional skills such as hunting, hide preparation and berry picking.

Pheasant Rump Nakota First Nation youth Bronte Big Eagle learning to prepare a buffalo hide as part of Indigenous language instruction. (Submitted by Juanita McArthur-Big Eagle)

"So if we're walking about the land and trying to transfer that knowledge, seeing it and hearing it makes that connection, which makes those memories, which helps retain the words," she said.

McArthur-Big Eagle said it was a successful initiative, with 182 participants taking in at least one session.

"The retention of the words went from zero phrases to two phrases after each session," she said. "We saw the progress and the movement of language.

"As the speakers say, 'One word a day will wake up the language.'"

McArthur-Big Eagle said 21 students participated in a summer language and cultural camp and they retained 10 words after one session.

"So to me, it's there. It can happen," she said. "Knowing the people that I work with and how adamant they are in continuing our language and passing on this Creator-given language, we will."

She said because there are so few truly fluent Nakoda speakers left — by her estimation, there are between 21 and 25 speakers in North America — her band has had to bring in speakers from the United States and other First Nations in Saskatchewan.

"It is endangered," she said. "And we will plug away until, I guess, we don't have any breath left."

Pheasant Rump Nakota First Nation medicine teacher Temp Sheppard teaching a youth how and when to cut a red willow using land-based, Indigenous language instruction. (Submitted by Juanita McArthur-Big Eagle)

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. According to UNESCO, three out of four of the 90 Indigenous languages in Canada are considered endangered.

In 2016, only about 15.6 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada could converse in an Indigenous language, down from 17 per cent in 2011 and 21 per cent in 2006.

Find a list of recipents getting support from the Aboriginal Languages Initiative here.


Kelly Provost is a newsreader and reporter with CBC News in Saskatoon. Email him at