A three-day national colloquium on Canada’s Indigenous language policies was held at York University’s Glendon Campus Dec. 6 to 8 in the wake of the new federal legislation Bill C-91. The colloquium was convened to discuss the state of Indigenous language policy and address challenges with the legislation.
Bill C-81, or the Indigenous Languages Act, was created to, among other goals, “support the efforts of Indigenous peoples to reclaim, revitalize, maintain and strengthen Indigenous languages.” Discussions at the colloquium examined the problems of implementing this legislation at the provincial/territorial and local levels.
The Indigenous Languages Act was enacted 50 years after the adoption of Canada’s Official Languages Act in 1969.
Prior to this year’s colloquium, Glendon hosted a gathering called “Indigenous Language Policy Implications of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada and the Related Responsibilities of Post-Secondary Institutions,” organized by Amos Key Jr. (Brock University), Ian Martin (Glendon Campus, York University), Jean Michel Montsion (Glendon Campus, York University) and Maya Chacaby (York University and University of Toronto). This event resulted in the creation of the Glendon Truth and Reconciliation Declaration on Indigenous Language Policy (2016).
Building off this important work, this year’s colloquium was organized by Martin and Key Jr. to focus on First Nations and Inuit language policy. Perspectives from Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples from academia, policy and more, were shared to bring awareness to the passing of the new law and the need for sustained effort on Indigenous language revitalization and education.
Presenters and participants from across Canada attended to voice current best practices and highlight additional needs in their communities, including:
- the need for accessible services for those within the deaf Indigenous language community;
- the need for more services to be available, from education to the justice system, in Indigenous languages, and;
- the lack of protections for Indigenous languages that could rival the Official Languages Act, given that Bill C-91 creates a hierarchy between French and English and Indigenous languages in Canada.
Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, the land affirmation organization of the Inuit of Nunavut, delivered a keynote address and spoke of the effects of neglecting Inuktut, the majority language of the territory, in favour of English. She revealed a secret cabinet document from the Mulroney years, which initiated a policy of blocking the use of Inuktut in governance, health, law and education. During her talk, she called for bold, audacious political pressure to replace colonial language policies with policies which guarantee constitutionalized, actionable, Indigenous language rights at a level no less than that provided to official language minorities throughout the country.
“What I want to see is concrete action to ensure that Inuktut continues to thrive,” said Kotierk.
An action committee was formed on the final day of the colloquium, and includes: Key Jr. (vice-provost, Indigenous Initiatives, Brock University), Ian Martin (associate professor, English, Glendon Campus), Qajaaq Ellsworth (Office of the President of Nunavut Tunngavik), David Leitch (language rights lawyer), and Jodie Williams (president, First Nations, Inuit and Métis Education Organization of Ontario).
The event was registered with UNESCO as one of Canada’s responses to 2019, the UN Year of Indigenous Languages. It was made possible by support from: the Centre for Research on Language and Culture Contact (Glendon Campus); the Canadian Language Museum; the Office of Glendon Vice-Principal, Research and Graduate Studies; the Centre for Indigenous Studies of the University of Toronto; the Office of the Associate Vice-President of Research of York University; the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies (York University); and the Nordik Research Institute of Algoma University.