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Aboriginal Canadians

Endangered languages

The UN dubbed 2008 the International Year of Languages, warning that thousands of languages face eventual extinction. And Canada isn't immune from the problem, experts warn.

Last Updated Feb. 22, 2008

A language dies on average every two weeks somewhere around the world, according to the United Nations — and many aboriginal languages in Canada are among those considered in peril.

On Feb. 21, 2008, the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officially launched the UN International Year of Languages to promote linguistic diversity and multilingualism while drawing attention to endangered languages.

"Languages matter!" is the slogan of the new international year. UNESCO says there are a multitude of languages spoken around the globe — an estimated 6,700 — but more than half of them may become extinct over the long-term.

The Department of Canadian Heritage says it is not funding or organizing any official events or activities to mark the year.

Canada remains a linguistically diverse country. There are two official languages recognized on the federal level, English and French, and even more are recognized in some parts of the country. (The Northwest Territories leads the list, with 11: English, French, Gwich'in, Cree, Dogrib (also known as Tlicho), Chipewyan, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey and South Slavey. Apart from the official languages, more than 90 other languages among immigrant communities and there are 50-plus aboriginal languages spoken from coast to coast to coast.

Yet Statistics Canada says only three aboriginal languages in Canada — Cree, Ojibwa and Inuktitut — remain viable.

Language preservation a 'matter of urgency': UNESCO

Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of UNESCO, says there are good reasons to fight to preserve languages.

He said languages are key to cultural identity, linguistic diversity is closely linked to cultural diversity, and languages play an important role in the fight against poverty, hunger and disease. Indigenous languages in particular, he says, are crucial to preserving indigenous knowledge.

But he says thousands of languages around the world will likely disappear in the space of a few generations because they are not used in schools, in the media or on the internet, or they have few very speakers left. Many are used only sporadically. UNESCO estimates that 96 per cent of the world's languages are spoken by four per cent of the world's population.

"We must act now as matter of urgency," he said in a statement released for International Mother Language Day on Feb. 21. The day has been celebrated since 2000.

Matsuura says governments should develop language policies that encourage linguistic communities to use their mother tongues as widely and often as possible.

He says governments should also encourage speakers of a dominant language to master other languages to promote cultural understanding.

UNESCO urged governments, educational institutions and professional associations to organize activities in 2008 to promote and protect all languages, especially endangered ones.

"Only if multilingualism is fully accepted can all languages find their place in our globalized world."

'Our languages are dying,' Canadian activist warns

Claudette Commanda, of the Ottawa-based First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres, told CBC News she is not surprised that Canada is not officially celebrating the UN International Year of Languages.

Commanda, who is executive director of the national non-profit organization, said she wonders whether the UN General Assembly consulted community groups actively fighting to preserve languages before it declared the year.

"I think that protecting languages should not be in the hands of governments," she said. "After all, it was government policies that destroyed our languages. Governments need to support and to provide adequate resources for language preservation, but in the case of our languages, it's up to First Nations to develop programs needed to protect, promote and revitalize First Nations languages at a community level."

Commanda said the confederacy has a mandate to protect languages it defines as belonging to First Nations, meaning status and non-status Indians, while other groups focus on preserving other aboriginal languages, of the Inuit and Métis peoples.

Eighty-seven cultural education centres, which receive funding under a federal cultural education centres program administered by the confederacy, are developing tools to increase knowledge and use of traditional Indian languages. The confederacy, set up by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, has an annual budget of $8 million.

The centres are producing dictionaries of First Nations languages, CD-ROMS, software, audiovisual tools, cultural awareness kits, and second-language acquisition programs. They are also organizing cultural activities, ceremonies and summer camps to promote First Nation languages. And they are working with band-operated schools to develop culturally relevant curricula.

"Our languages are dying rapidly. Our languages are in a critical state," Commanda said. "Our position is that all First Nations languages are endangered."

Commanda says Cree and Ojibwa — along with Inuktitut, spoken by the Inuit — are considered to have the greatest rate of survival because they have large numbers of speakers. But even Cree and Ojibwa are endangered, she says, because they're not spoken in all of their respective communities.

"We need to bank the languages. Our elders are telling us that all are endangered."

She acknowledges that families, not just language tools and cultural education centres, play an important role in passing on languages. However, she says many First Nations families across the country are not in a position to ensure their children speak their native tongues because many are dealing with a host of problems, from poverty and unemployment to the legacy of residential schools.

"There's another reality to this. We need to provide them with support to help them pass on First Nations languages and culture," she said.

According to the confederacy, there are 52 First Nations language groups in 10 language families in Canada. The language groups include dialects.

Inuit most likely to speak aboriginal language

Statistics Canada says its 2006 census found that there are 60 aboriginal languages spoken by First Nations people, grouped in distinct language families, which include Algonquian, Athapaskan, Siouan, Salish, Tsimshian, Wakashan, Iroquoian, Haida, Kutenai and Tlingit. Cree is spoken by the largest number of First Nations speakers.

It found that there are five primary distinct Inuit language dialects spoken throughout Canada, and while Michif is the traditional language spoken by Métis people, the most commonly spoken aboriginal language among the Métis is Cree.

Inuit were most likely to speak an aboriginal language, according to the 2006 census. Just over 32,200 Inuit, or 64 per cent of the total, said Inuktitut was their mother tongue.

About 29 per cent of the First Nations people who responded said they could speak an aboriginal language well enough to carry on a conversation, while only about four per cent of Métis said they spoke an aboriginal language.

All aboriginal languages 'losing ground': task force

According to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, in a 2002 publication entitled From Generation to Generation: Survival and Maintenance of Canada's Aboriginal Languages Within Families, Communities and Cities, aboriginal languages already extinct include Huron, Petun, Neutral in the Iroquoian family, Beothuk, Pentlatch and Comox in the Salish family, and Tsetsaut and Nicola in the Athabaskan family.

More than a dozen aboriginal languages are near extinction, the 2002 report said.

In 2002, the federal government — then under the Liberals — announced it would spend $172 million over 11 years to preserve aboriginal languages. The funding led to the creation of a task force on aboriginal languages and culture that produced 25 recommendations.

The task force said aboriginal languages range from "flourishing" to "critically endangered."

"Even languages with a large number of speakers may be flourishing in some regions and be in a critical state in others," it reads.

It concludes: "Some are spoken by only a few elders, others by tens of thousands. Large language groups like the Cree, Ojibwa and Inuktitut are viable, having at least 25,000 speakers, ranging from the young to the elderly. However, all languages, including those considered viable, are losing ground and are endangered."

'Do not forget our languages,' elders urge

In November 2007, the federal government under Stephen Harper's Conservatives cut the $172 million earmarked by the Liberals for aboriginal language preservation, saying aboriginal organizations had not come up with plans on how to spend the federal money. At the time, the Assembly of First Nations said the claim was not true.

Currently, the Department of Canadian Heritage manages what it calls its Aboriginal Languages Initiative, which provides about $5 million in annual funding to aboriginal communities across Canada to support community-based language projects.

The department says the initiative is designed to support projects that increase the number of language speakers, encourage language transmission from generation to generation, and expand the use of the languages in family and community settings.

Commanda says there is no question that more money is needed to preserve endangered languages — and that they are key, as UNESCO says, to cultural survival.

Elders, when consulted by the task force, said the same thing. According to the task force report, they said: "Do not forget our languages. Speak and write our languages. Teach and learn our languages. Respect each other's dialects and do not ridicule how others speak. Focus on young people. Start in the home to strengthen the will of the people to bring back our languages. Work together to build a foundation for our peoples. Speak with a united voice."

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