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This article was published 20/7/2015 (1548 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Canada is home to about 60 aboriginal languages, which have been spoken for thousands of years. Almost all of these languages exist nowhere else on the planet. But this extraordinary heritage is in danger. Only a handful of these languages are likely to survive into the next century if current trends continue. What can we do to halt this development?
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called on the government of Canada to grant official-language status to Canada's aboriginal languages and to provide the necessary funding for preservation and revitalization efforts. In doing so, he followed the recommendations of the recent report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
One of the enduring horrors of the residential schools in Canada is the generational transmission of aboriginal languages was violently broken.
All of us have heard about the cruel punishments often visited on students who spoke their ancestral language at school. This led many of them to not pass the language on to their children to protect them from similar punishments. Once the chain of transmission has been broken, it is very hard to re-establish.
Granting aboriginal languages official status has the power to do just that. It gives these languages and their speakers the recognition and prestige they deserve.
Canada has two official languages and as the Official Languages Act points out: "English and French are a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian identity." This is indisputable. But Inuktitut, Blackfoot and Mitchif are fundamental characteristics of Canadian identity as well.
Canada styles itself as a multicultural, but bilingual country. This neglects a fundamental fact: our language lies at the core of our identity. In order to be multicultural, Canada needs to acknowledge it has always been multilingual in practice, if not in law.
Speaking an official language brings privileges, as set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 23 (minority language education rights). Under this section, a Canadian citizen whose first language is a minority language has the right to have their children receive their education in this minority language — thus, in simple terms, if you are a member of the French minority in Manitoba, your children have the right to education in French.
Aboriginal languages, by contrast, are not protected under section 23, nor do the treaties unequivocally guarantee the right to aboriginal-language education. Instead, aboriginal-language rights are set by the provinces and territories. In Saskatchewan and Alberta, for example, this means an aboriginal child has the right to instruction in their ancestral language for only two hours per week. No wonder numbers are declining. If we want aboriginal languages to flourish, we need primary and secondary education in these languages, right now.
But, I have heard many times, does this not mean these students will fall behind, since they do not speak English or French? Actually, the opposite is true.
Research has shown there are many benefits to multilingualism: Multilingual people have on average higher cognitive abilities and succumb less frequently to dementia. Research also shows fluency in your mother tongue improves your academic success in a different language.
I recently had the good fortune to visit the Clearwater River Dene School in northern Saskatchewan that introduced a transitional immersion program. The first three years are taught exclusively in Dene Suline, and then a slow transition to English takes place.
Since this program started almost 10 years ago, the students' performance has improved across the board in math and reading scores as well as discipline. Imagine if this happened across the country. The goal of closing the educational gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students suddenly seems in reach.
The right to publicly-funded aboriginal-language education lies at the heart of Mr. Bellegarde's proposal. Worrying about the challenges of displaying 60-plus languages on a cereal box is missing the point, there are far more important matters at stake here.
Canada is a signatory to the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which states in article 14 that "Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages."
Seven years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to Canada's aboriginal people for the residential schools system. But words are cheap when no action follows. It is high time to give aboriginal languages the respect they deserve, and the funding that will secure their continued existence. For Canada to officially recognize its aboriginal languages would leave a legacy all of us could be proud of.
Olga Lovick is an associate professor of linguistics and Dene language studies at the First Nations University of Canada.
Updated on Monday, July 20, 2015 at 7:05 AM CDT: Adds photo