Recently, a public hearing was held as part of a five-year review of the Official Languages Act.
The meeting wasn’t heavily attended — by my count there were two people there who weren’t in some official capacity. However, deputy premier Diane Archie was present and listening keenly to the concerns given.
And from those concerns, there needs to be some serious work done on the infrastructure surrounding both Gwich’in and Inuvialuktun to keep them alive and spoken for the next generation.
Challenges include the dwindling number of speakers, the lack of an immersive environment to help teach and practice the languages and perhaps most significant is the absence of opportunities to use either language as people grow into adults.
One excellent idea that was brought up was that government employees should be able to speak in both languages, though with 11 official languages that’s a lot of training for a service that government accountants are likely to point out isn’t very frequently used. The first step is there needs to be an actual demand for the usage of these languages.
As a hypothetical example, anyone with business with the court system has the right to have proceedings in their native language, which would effectively mean the court would employ an interpreter to translate the proceedings into either Gwich’in or Inuvialuktun.
This is not suggesting in any way that people accused of crimes should be intentionally eating up the court’s time, but so far during my time reporting in Inuvik I have yet to see anyone take advantage of this right. If people made use of it they would inadvertently create the need for people who are knowledgeable in these languages to keep the system going, even if they continued to listen to the proceedings in the pre-translated English. The point of this thought-experiment is the only way either of these languages are going to survive in the face of English and it’s all-imposing convenience is to force people to have to know it and speak it.
Pushing for these rights in other correspondence with governments would create similar opportunities. If people request the presence of a interpreter, someone will have to be hired to interpret. If enough people request the service, there will be an effort to train more staff to provide it, creating a career chain.
And that’s the key. If being fluent in Gwich’in, Inuvialuktun or other languages provides an opportunity for reliable and long-term employment, people will learn it. I’m 100 per cent certain there are plenty of people growing up in the Delta who would leap at the chance to have a local career as a guardian of the Gwich’in or Inuvialuktun languages.
This concept has already been shown to work with other schools of traditional knowledge — particularly with on-the-land education. Years ago, someone with a vision set out a mandate across the Beaufort Delta to emphasize kids learn the historical knowledge of their ancestors. Now, we have programs all across the Delta employing young adults to Elders and everyone in between that should be the envy of education systems everywhere.
The same can be done for language. But it needs to be done quickly and the entire community needs to provide the opportunities for these languages to flourish.