COVER STORY WILL LAW SAVE ENDANGERED TONGUES?
Federal government aiming to introduce the Indigenous Languages Act in fall sitting
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