COVER STORY WILL LAW SAVE EN­DAN­GERED TONGUES?

Fed­eral govern­ment aim­ing to in­tro­duce the Indige­nous Lan­guages Act in fall sit­ting

StarMetro Edmonton - - COVER STORY - KIERAN LEAVITT CODIE MCLACH­LAN/STARMETRO ED­MON­TON

Many words in the Cree lan­guage are buried un­der the cul­tural rub­ble of col­o­niza­tion, smoth­ered by res­i­den­tial schools, where chil­dren weren’t al­lowed to speak their na­tive tongue.

Ed Lavallee-Mee­quaan can flu­ently speak Cree — one of the coun­try’s most widelyspo­ken Indige­nous lan­guages, along with Ojib­way, and Innu/Mon­tag­nais. In fact, Cree is his first lan­guage. But he’s no­ticed that many flu­ent speak­ers are older and few young peo­ple speak it.

Now 77, he lives in Ed­mon­ton, where he can use Cree more of­ten as there is a small com­mu­nity of peo­ple who grew up with it as their first lan­guage and love speak­ing it.

“When I lived in other Cana­dian cities, I didn’t find too many good Cree speak­ers,” he said.

Born in 1940, he grew up on the Stur­geon Lake First Na­tion re­serve in cen­tral Saskatchewan but went on to travel across Canada through­out his life.

“That lan­guage should be de­clared an of­fi­cial lan­guage ... (and) be treated by the govern­ment pour­ing a lot of money into Cree im­mer­sion in all the schools in the coun­try,” he said. “That would be one of my dreams.”

Pre­serv­ing and re­vi­tal­iz­ing Indige­nous lan­guages was one of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion’s Calls to Ac­tion. In De­cem­ber 2016, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­nounced the govern­ment would work with Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties to de­velop an Indige­nous Lan­guages Act.

Con­sul­ta­tions be­gan in June 2017 be­tween the fed­eral govern­ment and ad­vo­cacy groups the As­sem­bly of First Na­tions, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis Na­tion.

It’s a race against time for the fed­eral govern­ment, since some of the Canada’s 60 Indige­nous lan­guages have as few as a half dozen na­tive speak­ers left.

Khel­silem, who goes by one name, is one of about two dozen Squamish speak­ers left on the west coast of Bri­tish Columbia. A Van­cou­ver res­i­dent, he is the pro­gram direc­tor of the arts and ed­u­ca­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion Kwi Awt Stelmexw, and a councillor for the Squamish Na­tion.

He learned Squamish as a se­cond lan­guage from a men­tor and now teaches it to peo­ple in an im­mer­sion pro­gram. He es­ti­mates there are just five na­tive Squamish speak­ers left in the prov­ince.

He says Indige­nous lan­guages in Canada are Ed­ward Lavallee, a Cree speaker, has no­ticed that many flu­ent speak­ers are older and few young peo­ple speak the lan­guage.

“re­garded as less than the value that is placed on English and French,” and par­ents don’t have the right to ed­u­cate their chil­dren in their na­tive tongue.

“I think it speaks to the colo­nial roots in Canada as an English and French coun­try and not as a coun­try that re­spects Indige­nous rights.”

Khel­silem doesn’t think it’s fea­si­ble to give all Indige­nous lan­guages of­fi­cial sta­tus in Canada — a pos­si­bil­ity

most peo­ple in­ter­viewed for this story men­tioned — but de­tails are scarce on what’s go­ing to be in the leg­is­la­tion.

The sheer num­ber of Indige­nous lan­guages and di­alects makes leg­is­la­tion a chal­lenge. Es­ti­mates on the num­ber of speak­ers have been ques­tioned, some lan­guages are more ro­bust and spo­ken by more peo­ple than oth­ers, and even the num­ber of lan­guages has been de­bated.

While Sta­tis­tics Canada counted a lit­tle more than 2,000 na­tive Cree speak­ers in Ed­mon­ton in 2016, Reuben Quinn, who teaches a di­alect called Ne­hiyaw at the city’s Cen­tre for Race and Cul­ture, be­lieves the num­ber is much lower.

With files from Tessa Vickan­der, StarMetro Van­cou­ver

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