Residential school systems in Canada have perpetuated the loss of Indigenous languages for centuries. Considering the level of endangerment Indigenous languages across Canada are facing as a result, government help in restoring them is vital.
In an article originally published in Chatelaine, Métis author Chelsea Vowel makes a case for Indigenous languages to be taught alongside French and English in Canada. Vowel argues there are constitutional protections and funding for Canada’s two official languages of English and French, while the languages of the original peoples of Canada are left behind.
The current education system in Canada is structured to easily push Indigenous studies to the background. Right now, it’s possible to go through an entire primary and secondary education in Canada without encountering the history of Indigenous peoples at all.
Even high school’s mandatory Canadian history courses rarely focus on Indigenous Canadian histories, skipping over residential schools and glossing over colonialism.
To combat this, Vowel argues every province and territory should pass an Official Languages Act which recognizes the Indigenous languages of those areas. This would be an important step going forward to not only ensure these languages are kept alive, but that they’re appropriately respected, funded and recognized by the government.
The emphasis Vowel’s proposal puts on the regional aspects of Indigenous languages gives her argument real weight. While languages like Inuktituk, Cree and Ojibwe are in danger, there are 70 Indigenous languages across the country today which need more support to stay alive. History, culture and language are interconnected and if these languages disappear there won’t be a way to revive them.
Signage and name recognition is another critical way to preserve languages. In British Columbia, distance signs with both English and Tsilhqot’in names for locations were installed on Highway 20. Highway signs in English, Squamish and Lil’wat were also put up along the highway to Whistler before the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Language has power and these small changes can have a big impact on bringing Indigeneity out of the background of the Canadian cultural scope and aid in language revival. For non-Indigenous Canadians, the encouragement of basic knowledge of Indigenous languages needs to be prefaced with basic knowledge of Indigenous history in Canada.
Having younger generations across the country become fluent in Indigenous languages is the only way to keep them alive and the Canadian government has a responsibility to help reverse the damage before it’s done.
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