“Without immediate, robust, and heartfelt intervention, language decline will be irreversible.”
– Chelsea Vowel / âpihtawikosisân –
If you haven’t read Métis author Chelsea Vowel’s recent article, which argues for the teaching of Indigenous languages alongside French and English (the article was posted on the Maclean’s website last week), we highly recommend it. Vowel, who is also known as âpihtawikosisân, is someone who has fought hard to access and reclaim her Cree language, and she articulates the case for Indigenous language preservation and revitalization compellingly and with great passion.
In the article, Vowel systematically lays out why each province and territory in Canada should pass an Official Languages Act: one that recognizes the Indigenous languages that originate in each of those provinces and territories.
Along with this official recognition, she argues, must come funding that ensures language transmission can continue in schools, workplaces, and government.
The impetus for Vowel’s article, not surprisingly, is the 2016 census data released at the end of October. On the surface, the 2016 census data seems to suggest that the health of Indigenous languages has improved over the past 10 years, with the number of people speaking one of 70 Indigenous languages in Canada having grown by 3.1 percent since 2006. Some news headlines even went so far as to state that Indigenous languages are “surging” or “enduring.”
But as Vowel points out, the stark reality here is that no Indigenous language in Canada is considered safe, and three-quarters are endangered. In fact, twenty-four of the Indigenous languages listed in the 2016 census each have fewer than 200 speakers – a number of speakers Vowel believes is inflated, which underscores the seriousness of the language extinction issue we face.
As Vowel explains it: Although the census differentiates between people who are able to speak a language and those who are able to converse in it, the ability to “converse” in a language can mean different things to different people. She cites the example of world travellers who may know how to ask for simple directions to the bathroom in a language but may lack the ability to chat about anything weightier such as global politics. The real test of a language health is fluency, and the 2016 census simply doesn’t address this more fulsome aspect of language.
The bottom line for Vowel – and for us as well – is that the data available all point to severe Indigenous language loss in Canada, not a “surge” of any kind. The real indicator of language health is the number of mother-tongue speakers who can contribute to intergenerational transmission. And by that measure, Indigenous languages in Canada have experienced a serious decline over time such that no Indigenous language is considered safe, while three-quarters are considered to be endangered and at severe risk of extinction. Even among Indigenous languages that are considered to be “robust” (such as Cree, Inuktitut, and Ojibway), the rate of language loss has actually been speeding up, Vowel states.
As Vowel rightly points out, our Indigenous languages exist nowhere else in the world. And when they die here, they die forever. Moreover, when these languages die we also lose the intangible cultural concepts embedded within them; cultural concepts that have the potential to give all Canadians “a deeper understanding of our place in relation to the world around us.” In fact, as Vowel says in her article, many of the concepts currently being explored by Western medicine, environmentalism, and the humanities are “foundational within Indigenous cultures and languages.” A she notes:
“Holistic health and teachings, understandings of interconnectedness with human and non-human beings, and ways of being in good relation with one another are all described in our various Indigenous languages.”
The reality that Vowel very capably sets before us is that, “without immediate, robust, and heartfelt intervention, language decline will be irreversible.” We should therefore not allow statistics to lull us into a false sense of security. Stripping Indigenous peoples of their languages was a deliberate policy of the residential school system; concrete action is needed to reverse that damage.
What we desperately need at this point are highly fluent speakers – of which there are fewer and fewer every year – combined with a systematic, well-funded, intergenerational program of language transmission. As Vowel states, we can and we must start planning to offer these Indigenous languages alongside English and French throughout the country as appropriate. As she writes:
“… we need to be looking at supporting these languages where they exist, on the lands whence they originate. In Iqaluit, that would be Inuktitut, while in Halifax it would be Mi’kmaq…. Without immediate, robust, and heartfelt intervention, language decline will be irreversible.”
Indigenous languages are enshrined in section 35 of the Constitution as an Aboriginal right. In fact, the inherent right to speak and pass on our languages is recognized internationally by the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which Canada has officially adopted. What is needed now is implementation of those language rights, supported by adequate funding.
One very achievable action suggested by Vowel – and one that we at FNEF also advocate for – is to incentivize second-language Indigenous language learning by hiring fluent speakers such as Elders to be present in daycares and schools, and making public service positions available to Indigenous language speakers.
Time is of the essence. We are now in crisis mode in terms of saving Indigenous languages in B.C. and across Canada. A prime example that looms very large for us: There are only seven Elder speakers of the Barkley dialect of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth language remaining in Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ. This language will become extinct without immediate action to preserve it. If it were to die (which we are not going to allow to happen), the intangible cultural concepts embedded within it will be lost to us along with the opportunity to ever again benefit from the deeper understanding of “our place in relation to the world around us.”