Preserving Northern Languages will require the GNWT to make significant changes to how it is taught in schools and public institutions.
That’s the view of language preservers and Elders who came out to a June 7 public hearing on the NWT Official Languages Act, which is up for a five-year review. It’s the first of several hearings to be held around the territory.
And the people who came out had a lot to say.
“We need to recruit people from the nine aboriginal languages in the Northwest Territories,” said Elder and former language commissioner Sarah Jerome. “I think the languages commissioner has to be visible, so if I have a concern I can sit down with her or him and be able to talk face to face. So it has to be someone who is going to travel.
“The key is to show us that you care. Show us that the language is important, because we’re struggling at the community level.”
One change she recommended was moving back to an immersion-based learning system instead of in-classroom instruction. She noted schools used to devote 210 hours to Indigenous languages but now only 90 hours are devoted to covering both Gwich’in and Inuvialuktun.
She suggested language teachers should have an Elder as a teaching assistant, since most trained educators are not fluent in Gwich’in or Inuvialuktun.
Restoring the Language Instructional Program at Aurora College is also essential in preserving the northern languages. Jerome also suggested requiring GNWT staff to learn both languages to set an example, which she said was the practice when she worked for the government.
Gwich’in Tribal Council languages revitalization coordinator Andrew Cienski said the GNWT needs to rethink the timing of funding for programs. He echoed Jerome’s call for a return to immersion, noting research has established it as the most effective tool for teaching.
Simplifying processes to make it easier to apply for funding would also be a great help, according to Cienski. He complained they often don’t get funding until months after it was needed.
“You need to be Dr. Who to figure out how this works,” he said. “Our staff are not going to sit around waiting to find out in September if they have a job.”
He also suggested the languages commissioner could become a repository for tools and information that could be shared by Indigenous groups across Canada so language revitalization programs aren’t stuck having to re-invent the wheel.
Celina Jerome, a Gwich’in and concerned citizen, said there were only a handful of fluent Gwich’in speakers left. She noted she was only able to find one interpreter — Mabel English — to cover Gwich’in translations for the night. Lilian Elias covered the translations for Inuvialuktun.
She also echoed Cienski’s concerns about the timing of funding, noting the Gwich’in language program at the Children First Society almost shut down in June from a lack of funding.
Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler drove the challenges in preserving northern languages home as she responded to Jerome’s suggestions.
“I grew up in this community. I don’t know my language,” she said, noting her sole opportunity growing up was taking a Northern Studies class in high school. “There’s a big change that needs to happen. There’s been reviews and reviews of the official languages act and there’s been recommendations and at one point there even has been responses from the government. Not this government, but previous ones.
“We can review it every five years, but is the government going to do anything?”
A final report to the legislature is due in October. The Standing Committee is accepting written submissions up until the end of September.