An online CBC news item caught our eye yesterday morning. The CBC article noted that the use of Aboriginal languages is on the decline in the Northwest Territories, bucking an optimistic national trend that some feel is apparent.
The article indicates that there was a 15 per cent decline in the number of people in the North West Territories “who primarily speak an Aboriginal language at home, as well as the number of people who consider one of these languages their mother tongue.” This is definitely concerning.
The information comes from a comparison of data contained in the 2011 and 2016 national censuses. As the CBC article states:
Compared to 2011, the number of people who speak Gwich’in as a primary language at home dropped 43 per cent, from 35 speakers to 20. The other languages in the N.W.T. that saw the greatest decline in primary language usage at home were Tlicho at 15 per cent, North and South Slavey at 10 per cent, and the Inuit languages of Inuinnaqtun, Inuvialuktun and Inuktitut, which saw a 52 per cent decline in use as a primary language at home.
Commenting on the situation, retired language specialist Andy Norwegian (quoted in the CBC article) states that it is important for these Indigenous languages to be passed down from generation to generation.
He attributes the decline to the lack of Elders who can teach these languages and points to the shortage of fluent speakers as a significant challenge, one that must be overcome if we are to revitalize Indigenous languages:
“We all know that for a language to be a thriving language, there has to be an intergenerational transmission of language, starting with the very young, and right to the old…. I think we’ve lost a lot of those elders and fluent speakers and they aren’t being replaced with fluent speakers at the bottom level.”
However, Norwegian also points to a much deeper issue that Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action seek to correct; namely, the fact that “many people are still apprehensive to speak Aboriginal languages because they were punished for it in residential schools.”
As Norwegian goes on to state:
“You meet anybody in a restaurant, you know, they would start off by talking in English at a normal voice level. But you get them into talking the [Aboriginal] language, you know that they will lower their voice. I attribute that to the effects of residential schools.”
Former N.W.T. languages commissioner Sarah Jerome, who is also a retired educator, is likewise quoted in the CBC article. She says “we need to be radical and we need to start speaking our languages” to these young children. We wholeheartedly agree.
Language revitalization is one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s key recommendations, and it’s one that the Federal government has committed to implementing and funding; most recently, with the Budget 2017 announcement of $89.9 million over the next three years to preserve, protect, and revitalize Indigenous languages and cultures in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in his December 6, 2016, Address to the Assembly of First Nations: “The Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Peoples of Canada have begun our own new walk together. And together we’ve taken the first steps in what we all know is going to be a multi-generational journey.”