'Brink of destruction': AFN national chief demands action on fading Indigenous languages at UN

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde told a UN gathering today that many Indigenous languages face extinction without further action from the federal government and the wider international community.

Liberal government has passed legislation to 'reclaim, recover and maintain' Indigenous languages

National Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks to the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde told a UN gathering today that many Indigenous languages face extinction without further action from the federal government and the wider international community.

Speaking Tuesday at a United Nations summit on Indigenous languages, Bellegarde said fewer than one in five Indigenous people in Canada can hold a conversation in their traditional language.

He said because language is so closely tied to Indigenous culture, many First Nations, Métis and Inuit feel isolated and lacking a "vital connection to their ancestors."

"Our languages connect us all to our ceremonies, to our lands, to our waters and to our right to self-determination as Indigenous peoples," he told UN delegates gathered for a day marking the end of the International Year of Indigenous Languages. "We want our children to grow up with these rich and beautiful languages.

"But there is a very real danger that our Indigenous languages will not survive another century. For our languages to survive they must be taught ... Work with us to help bring Indigenous languages back from the brink of destruction."

After centuries of colonialism meant to assimilate Indigenous people and strip them of their unique cultural identities, Bellegarde said some progress has been made in the last few years thanks to elders teaching their languages to young people eager to reclaim part of their identity.

He said the number of Indigenous language speakers is now starting to "slowly, slowly" grow again, but more action is needed to repair the damage done by residential schools, where English and French were forced on Indigenous students.

The federal Liberal government has sought to bolster the number of Indigenous language speakers through the passage of Bill C-91, legislation designed to help communities "reclaim, recover and maintain" Indigenous languages — some of which are spoken by fewer than a few dozen people.

Indigenous Service Minister Marc Miller also addressed the UN on Tuesday. He acknowledged how dire the climate is for Indigenous languages in Canada right now, but he pointed to C-91 as a way forward.

"In Canada, we have taken significant steps towards reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. If we do not act now to protect these beautiful languages, many of us will not hear it for ourselves in the years to come," he said, speaking in Mohawk.

Miller, who is a non-Indigenous anglophone from Montreal, has been learning Kanyen'kéha (or Mohawk) for three years. He has said he spends a few hours each day trying to master the complicated Iroquoian language, which is spoken by Indigenous peoples in southern Ontario and Quebec and upstate New York.

"I look forward to seeing the work continue with all Indigenous partners in Canada for the co-implementation of the [languages] act in a spirit of mutual trust and respect," he said.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller listens to chiefs as they speak during a session at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The legislation establishes the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages, a new federal entity meant to protect and promote such languages as Cree, Ojibway, Oji-Cree, Mohawk, Mi'kmaq, Michif (the native tongue of some Métis) and Inuktut, among dozens of others that are still spoken in Canada with varying levels of fluency.

Three out of four of the 90 different living Indigenous languages in Canada are said to be endangered.

The new office will be tasked with: planning "initiatives and activities" to restore and maintain fluency in Indigenous languages; creating technological tools, educational materials and permanent records of Indigenous languages, including audio and video recordings of fluent speakers; and funding immersion programs.

The office also will undertake further research on existing and extinct Indigenous languages.

Bellegarde said he'd like to see bilingual language programs for schoolchildren to encourage early development.

"Bill C-91 is such an important tool. We said to governments that you should expend as many resources to revitalize and bring back fluency to our languages ... as you did trying to eradicate them," Bellegarde told CBC News Network after the speech. "This is very important to our survival."

While stopping short of granting any particular Indigenous language official status on a par with English or French, the bill allows for the translation of federal documents into Indigenous languages and interpretation services to "facilitate the use of an Indigenous language in the course of the federal institution's activities."


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.