The Trudeau government tabled its long-awaited Indigenous Languages legislation Tuesday in the House of Commons.
Bill C-91, An Act Respecting Indigenous Languages, would establish measures for long-term, sustainable funding of Indigenous languages, support and promote the use of Indigenous languages, establish an Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous languages, and encourage collaboration between the federal, provincial and Indigenous governments to deliver supports for Indigenous languages.
The legislation was celebrated at a press conference at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where Heritage and Multiculturalism Minister Pablo Rodriguez acknowledged Canada’s role in the destruction of Indigenous languages via residential schools and called C-91 “a major milestone in our journey to reconciliation.”
“While we cannot change the past, we can, and we must, together, work for a better future,” he said. “We will do this with this bill.”
According to the government, the 12 principles that informed the bill’s content was co-developed with Indigenous groups and through more than 50 collaborative engagement sessions.
“We all have a role to make language revitalization a reality today,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said at the announcement.
“We must continue our work together on co-development right through the implementation of the bill.”
Last week Rodriguez, Bellegarde, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) President Natan Obed and Métis National Council President Clément Chartier marked the International Year of Indigenous Languages at the United Nations in New York.
“The bill recognizes that the rights related to Indigenous languages are among the rights recognized and affirmed by Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982,” said Clara Morin Dal Col, the Métis National Council’s minister of culture, heritage and family.
“We salute the prime minister for acting on this priority.”
Responding to Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The legislation will also “meaningfully respond” to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action 13, 14 and 15, Rodriguez said Tuesday.
Those actions state Indigenous rights must include language rights, that an Indigenous Languages Act should be a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and that Indigenous languages are reinforced by the treaties with sufficient funding made available.
Lastly, in call to action 15, the commission urged the federal government to appoint a commissioner to help promote Indigenous languages and report on the adequacy of federal funding of Indigenous languages initiatives.
For over 150 years, approximately 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools, where many were forbidden to speak or practice their language and culture.
By responding to the TRC, Rodriguez said the feds are “demonstrating our full support of the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples without qualification.
“This legislation will provide the mechanisms to recognize Indigenous languages… support the reclamation, revitalization, strengthening and maintenance of Indigenous languages in Canada, support and promote Indigenous languages, provide long-term sustainable funding to reach these goals, and establish an office of the commissioner of Indigenous languages.”
Canada engaged Inuit “in bad faith’: ITK
ITK representation was notably absent on the stage for Tuesday’s announcement.
Obed instead sat in the audience for the event.
“Despite being characterized as a reconciliation and co-development initiative, the Government of Canada engaged Inuit in bad faith throughout this legislative initiative,” the national Inuit leader said in a statement emailed to media.
ITK President Natan Obed said the Trudeau government engaged Inuit “in bad faith” on Bill C-91. APTN/File photo.
“The absence of any Inuit-specific content suggests this bill is yet another legislative initiative developed behind closed doors by a colonial system and then imposed on Inuit.”
Obed called the bill a “symbolic gesture” that doesn’t address Inuit rights to speak their language, or include provisions necessary to support its revitalization, maintenance, and promotion.
He told APTN News Tuesday that ITK provided the government with draft provisions for an Inuktuk section of the act, but that the government “has not responded in a detailed fashion to the positions we have taken.”
He said ITK also detailed its concerns over the process in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December, but has not received a response.
“There are a number of places where we feel the Government of Canada could have worked through the process with us,” he said, adding “co-development means something very different than consultation.”
Eighty four percent of Inuit within the 51 communities that make up the four regions of Inuit Nunangat report the ability to speak Inuktut.
Inuktut has official language status in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, and is an official language of the Nunatsiavut Government in Labrador.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), three quarters of Canada’s approximately 90 living Indigenous languages are “endangered.”
Article 13 of UNDRIP says Indigenous peoples “have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.”
Pauline Gordon, a residential school survivor, educator and former assistant deputy minister in the Northwest Territories, is concerned that the act will not recognize Indigenous languages as official languages.
“What exactly does a right entitle an Aboriginal person to?” she said.
“And how much are they going to provide to support language learning and context?”
Pauline Gordon wants Canada to give Indigenous languages “official” status, like English and French.
Gordon, originally from Aklavik, NWT, wants to see more Indigenous languages flourish around her and not just for a small window of time.
“What degree are they willing to stick their neck out and say we owe it to [Indigenous peoples]?”
Rodriguez said Indigenous groups will have more opportunity to shape the legislation as it moves through committees and undergoes amendments throughout the legislative process.
But Obed said the two years Canada had to work with Indigenous groups on the bill was plenty of time.
“This was a signature initiative of this government, and there was commitment made in 2016,” he said.
“That’s more than enough time to figure out how to do co-development to get provisions that can be respectful of Inuit within the first reading of the legislation.”
The bill will have to go through three readings in the legislature, and three in the Senate, with time for committee reviews and amendments.
The Liberals have said they would like to see the legislation receive royal assent before the fall election.