Language advocates have funding questions about Ottawa's new Indigenous Languages Act

The act, which was tabled Tuesday, sets up the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages, a federal entity intended to protect, promote and revitalize Indigenous languages. Some say it's a positive step, while others say it's not enough.

Legislation 'just a very mild suggestion that we revitalize Indigenous languages,' says Hayden King

Children at Eskasoni's Mi'kmaw immersion school. Some say the new Indigenous Languages Act tabled Tuesday is a positive step, while others say it's not enough. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Indigenous language advocates have questions about how Ottawa's recently tabled Indigenous Languages Act will benefit their communities.

The act, which was tabled Tuesday, sets up the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages, a federal entity tasked at protecting, promoting and revitalizing Indigenous languages.

The Department of Canadian Heritage, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN)  and the Métis Nation co-developed the legislation.

Chief Leroy Denny of Eskasoni First Nation in Nova Scotia has been a member of the AFN Chiefs Committee on Languages for the past five years, and helped to develop the bill.

"I believe this legislation will inspire all of our people to speak our languages [and] renew the vibrancy of our communities," Denny said in a phone interview from the announcement in Ottawa.

Denny's community of Eskasoni is the largest Mi'kmaw community in the world, and has made positive strides in revitalizing Mi'kmaw fluency in the younger generations through its own education programs.

WATCH: Visit the only Mi'kmaw immersion school in the world

But Denny said there's still an urgent need for the long term funding that comes with ratification of the bill.

Developing learning tools that allow children to embrace and retain Indigenous languages at a young age requires well-resourced research and proper guidance from Elders and traditional knowledge keepers. It can be costly, but it's necessary, Denny said.

He said that he's hopeful the financial commitment to come with the legislation will at least match the $89.9 million over three years included in federal government's 2017 budget.

Reghan Tarbell, executive director at the Kanien'kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center, and representatives of other language and cultural organizations in Kahnawake, Que, participated in a handful of community engagement sessions during the legislation's development. 

"It's a positive step but I don't feel like I'm any closer to understanding how it will actually apply to First Nations communities," said Tarbell. 

Jessica Lazare, Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, Reaghan Tarbell, Shea Skye and Mary McComber sit are some of the representatives of Kahnawake's Language and Culture Network who will be planning year-round activities to celebrate the Mohawk language. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Tarbell said she hopes the act will mean additional funding beyond the existing Aboriginal Languages Initiative Program, which hasn't met the needs for some of the centre's programming such as Ratiwennahní:rats, a two-year adult Kanien'kéha immersion program.

"What centres like ours need is core support and operational funding, which they don't provide," she said.

"They don't like recurring projects so every time you apply, they want something innovative. We have a program like Ratiwennahní:rats: it works and produces speakers, which is our goal."

ITK not in support

In a statement, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents Inuit in Canada, said it had initially welcomed the legislative initiative when it was first announced.

"ITK wanted nothing more than to truly co-develop a bill that we could champion with other Indigenous Peoples and the Government of Canada," said ITK president Natan Obed in the statement.

"In no way was this bill co-developed with Inuit."

The statement calls the bill a "symbolic gesture" adding "the bill contains no federal obligation to fund Indigenous languages, nor does it provide for reliable federal support, and Indigenous participation, in multi-party agreements and other arrangements that would extend Indigenous language programs and services at provincial, territorial and municipal levels."

Legislation 'a very mild suggestion'

​Hayden King, executive director of the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto, said the legislation is disappointing because it lacks any substantive contribution to language revitalization and doesn't add anything new to the conversation.

"For many years people have been advocating that Indigenous languages become official languages of Canada with all of the benefits that affords and clearly we're not getting that," said King, who is Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation in Ontario.

He said dedicated and robust funding, support for community efforts and actual power to enforce language rights are needed.

"The law as it's written right now is just asking Canadians to support language revitalization without any compelling force," said King.

"It's just a very mild suggestion that we revitalize Indigenous languages."


With files from Jessica Deer, Nic Meloney, Rhiannon Johnson