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Leaders talk Indigenous languages protection in Yellowknife

The Canadian government needs to act fast to protect endangered Indigenous languages from dying out, says the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Sidney Cohen/NNSL photo
Melanie Joly, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, centre, joined territorial and provincial ministers responsible for culture in Yellowknife this week. From left: David Joanasie of Nunavut, Jordan Brown of Prince Edward Island, Leo Galvine of Nova Scotia, Joly, Caorline Cochrane of Northwest Territories, Christopher Mitchelmore of Newfoundland and Labrador and Jeanie Dendys of Yukon.
June 20, 2018

“A lot (of languages) are on the verge of extinction, none of them are safe,” Perry Bellegarde told Yellowknifer on Tuesday.

Bellegarde was in the city for after a meeting with representatives from the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Metis Nation and Melanie Joly, minister of Canadian Heritage, in Yellowknife.

These Indigenous organizations are collaborating with the department of Canadian Heritage on an Indigenous languages act.

The legislation would guarantee funding for the protection and promotion of Canada's 58-plus Indigenous languages.

“We don't want the residential school system to win,” said Bellegarde.

Children at residential schools were forbidden from speaking their language and were punished – often violently – if they did.

“You're language is who you are,” said Bellegarde. “It's connected to the land and the water and our ceremonies as well, so it's very vital to maintain that as an identity as First Nations people.”

In an interview on Wednesday, Joly said an Indigenous languages act would work toward “countering all the wrongs that were done due to the residential school system and the cultural genocide that happened over 150 years.”

She said the Liberal government plans to put an Indigenous languages bill before the House of Commons in the fall with the hope of having a law in place before the next federal election in October of 2019.

The Indigenous languages act will “link, directly, Indigenous languages to the protection of Indigenous rights in the constitution,” said Joly.

In other words, the act will make protecting Indigenous languages a constitutional obligation for the government of Canada.

Joly said the Indigenous languages legislation is the first law to be co-developed by the government and Indigenous peoples.

Following her meeting with Indigenous leaders, the federal heritage minister joined culture ministers from the provinces and territories at the Explorer Hotel for their annual meeting.

Preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages was a major topic of discussion.

The Northwest Territories has lots to share about its efforts to promote fluency and improve access to services in Indigenous languages, Caroline Cochrane, minister of Education, Culture and Employment, said after talks Wednesday.

NWT has 11 official languages, nine of which are Indigenous.

Cochrane said one goal is to make it so residents can speak any of the 11 official languages when they phone a government department.

“It's one thing to say that we recognize them, it's another thing to actually have the services that people can access in an official language,” she said.

To further its goal of expanding the services offered in Indigenous languages and support language education and fluency, the territorial government published an Indigenous languages action plan.

That GNWT is also distributing $4.8 million among Indigenous governments so they can develop their own language revitalization plans.