Whither Aboriginal languages--are they withering?Language is central to identity. As the 2005 federal Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Culture put it, "Language and culture are the foundations of the nationhood of First Nation, Inuit and Metis people." One might add, language is the foundation of culture.
Canada's cultural wealth is found not merely in its official bilingualism Official bilingualism refers to the policy adopted by some states of recognizing two languages as official and producing all official documents, and handling all correspondence and official dealings, including Court procedure, in the two said languages. or its multicultural tapestry; Aboriginal languages are a part of our mosaic. As Task Force member Frank Parnell of the Haida Nation said, "Each time an Aboriginal language dies, a piece of Canada dies."
A number have died, though, and more are at risk. Is this simply the price of progress, or should something be done? While 29% of First Nations people can converse in their language, only a few of these are flourishing: Cree, with about 85,000 speakers; Ojibway, with 30,000; Anishininiimowin (Oji-Cree, a language derived from Ojibway and Cree), 12,500, and Montagnais-Naskapi, 11,000. Most Inuit can speak one of the dialects of Inuktitut, but Statistics Canada reports a decreasing number using it as the main language at home. Michif, the traditional Metis language of Plains Cree structure and French nouns, is in the worst shape; only 4% of Metis can converse in it.
English is displacing languages around the world, as Robert Crum explains in Globish: How the English Language English language, member of the West Germanic group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Germanic languages). Spoken by about 470 million people throughout the world, English is the official language of about 45 nations. Became the World's Language. In Canada, the residential school system, mobility, and more recently, television and the Internet, are responsible for much of the loss. Yet Canada is doing better than the trend. Professor John Price of York University York University, at North York, Ont., Canada; nondenominational; coeducational; founded 1959 as an affiliate of the Univ. of Toronto, became independent 1965. wrote some years ago, "pessimistic views should be balanced in Canada by an awareness that Indian languages have survived more fully in Canada than [in] many other regions of the New World and that long term future viability is secure for at least ten Native languages. By contrast, all of the Caribbean languages are extinct [as are] well over half of the indigenous Central and South American languages." This may not be much comfort, though, to the last ten Nitinat (Ditidaht) or Comox speakers on Vancouver Island Vancouver Island (1991 pop. 579,921), 12,408 sq mi (32,137 sq km), SW British Columbia, Canada, in the Pacific Ocean; largest island off W North America. It is c.285 mi (460 km) long and c. , or the less than 100 Seneca, Cayuga or Onondaga speakers of the nearly 4,000 members in south-western Ontario.
British Columbia is home to six of Canada's eleven Aboriginal language families. Its geography gave rise to more First Nation languages than all the rest of country; 32 of about 59. It now has more languages in decline; B.C. accounts for only 7% of people with an Aboriginal mother tongue. According to the Task Force, those of B.C.'s languages that are not "viable small" are "endangered," with most in the latter group. B.C.'s First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Council, a B.C. Crown corporation with the mandate to support First Nations' efforts to revitalize their languages, arts, cultures and heritage, released a report last April. According to its Chair, Dr. Lorna Williams, "all First Nations languages in B.C. are in a critical state." Only 5,600 of 110,000 B.C. First Nation people are fluent, and they are mostly over 65. These are mainly elders whose mother tongue is Aboriginal; the language has been lost to the middle generations, and new generations learn it as a second language if at all.
There is a renaissance. Schools in First Nation communities now typically teach their language to students, who reportedly often go home and teach their nearly-lost language to their parents. The Department of Canadian Heritage The Department of Canadian Heritage, or simply Canadian Heritage, is the department of the government of Canada with responsibility for policies and programs regarding the arts, culture, media, communications networks, and sports and multiculturalism. , under its Aboriginal Languages Initiative, provides about $5 million a year to Aboriginal communities across Canada to support community-based language projects. Cultural Education Centres produce dictionaries, CD-ROMS, software, audiovisual tools, cultural awareness kits, and second-language acquisition programs. Technology, in some ways the enemy, can be a friend: Manitoba's Louis Riel Institute, for example, offers Michif audio lessons online. The Yinka Dene Language Institute The Yinka Dene Language Institute (YDLI) is an organization based in Stoney Creek, British Columbia, whose purpose is the study and maintenance of the language and culture of Dakelh and other First Nations people in northern British Columbia. of Vanderhoof, B.C. produces sophisticated materials and programs. The now self-governing Nisga'a of B.C.'s Nass Valley have a robust language program for schools and adults. This is to mention only a few examples. Even Michif may revive, if the new book written and illustrated by Metis artist Julie Flett, Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Lii Swer: L'Alfabet di Michif (Owls See Clearly at Night." A Michif Alphabet) captures the attention of Metis children.
Territorial legislatures recognize, in varying degrees, Aboriginal languages. In Nunavut, the Inuit Language (Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun) and English and French are Official Languages, used in the legislature, committees, caucus and executive, with Hansard representing the Inuit language in both Roman and syllabic syl·lab·ic
a. Of, relating to, or consisting of a syllable or syllables.
b. Pronounced with every syllable distinct.
2. orthography. The Northwest Territories recognizes as official for use in the legislature six First Nation languages and three versions of the Inuit language, in addition to English and French. Similarly, in Yukon, a Yukon aboriginal language may be used in debates or proceedings of the legislature. Also, in 2008, the Senate of Canada The Senate of Canada (French: Le Sénat du Canada) is a component of the Parliament of Canada, along with the Sovereign (represented by the Governor General) and the House of Commons. explored the use of Inuktitut in its deliberations. A committee visit to Iqaluit led it to recommend a pilot project of Inuktitut use in the Senate, to be followed by possible use of other Aboriginal languages. This was accepted in May 2008, and Inuktitut has since been used in the Senate ten times.
The revival of interest in language and tradition is reflected in the widespread adoption of First Nation names for what used to be called bands. The "Abitibi-Ontario" is now the Wahgoshig. The Riviere ri·vière
A necklace of precious stones, generally set in one strand.
[French rivière (de diamants), river (of diamonds), from Old French rivere, from Vulgar Latin Desert Band, north of Ottawa, is now the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg. The former Columbia Lake Band in south-eastern B.C. is renamed the Akisq'nuk First Nation. Cape Breton Island's Middle River Band has been Wagmatcook First Nation since the 1970s. These names bring pride and a restored sense of identity to the community.
The B.C. Council's view of why language is worth preserving is worth repeating:
The loss of a language means the loss of thousands of years worth of cultural nuances, rituals and practices. It is through language that a culture is transmitted. Each language holds unique ideas, philosophy, points of view, and intricate details of a culture including everything about a way of life such as family and community relations, systems of politics and power, food and health, art, songs and dance, spirituality and values, history, biology, biodiversity, natural and physical sciences, and interconnectedness with the environment. Every culture has adapted to unique environmental, social and political circumstances, and the language holds an accumulation of the experiences and circumstances of the people.
For those of us who see intrinsic value Intrinsic Value
1. The value of a company or an asset based on an underlying perception of the value.
2. For call options, this is the difference between the underlying stock's price and the strike price. in language, the preservation or revival of Canada's Aboriginal languages is good news. But the revival must be real; the long-term survival of Aboriginal languages requires their use in the home and in everyday discourse. For a language to be more that a curiosity or museum piece, a critical mass of users is needed. For all the good efforts of agencies, preservation is finally up to the home and the community. Yet it is to be hoped that the restorative value to a community of reviving its language does not isolate it. It must be balanced with engagement with the larger community. As the late Chief Justice Lamer wrote, seeking reconciliation within diversity, "We are all here to stay."
John B. H. Edmond is Counsel with Fraser Milner Casgrain Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP (FMC) is one of Canada’s leading business & litigation law firms. With more than 520 lawyers (175 litigators) it is the fifth largest law firm in Canada as well as the largest law firm in Western Canada. LLP LLP - Lower Layer Protocol in Ottawa. He practises in the area of constitutional, Aboriginal, and natural resource law He has had a lift,-long interest in language, and holds a Master's degree in linguistics.