April 08, 2024 3 min read

Every one of us has a role to play. Indigenous people and settler-Canadians can contribute to a healing chapter in our shared story of Indigenous languages removal, recovery and revival.

Decades of hard work have been restoring and protecting the Indigenous languages that are such a vital part of Kanata’s history.

Yet, the urgency of this continued and necessary work can’t be overstated.

A 2023 Statistics Canada survey of nearly 240,000 Indigenous people reported the first decline in 30 years in the number of people who knew their language well enough to carry on a conversation. Those reporting an Indigenous first language also dropped by seven per cent.

This isn’t surprising, as most first language speakers who learned these languages from birth — before violent and deliberate colonial attempts to break the link between Indigenous people and their cultures — are approaching the last season of their lives.

That same survey, however, also identified clusters of thriving language revitalization. Haisla, Halq’emeylem, Heiltsuk, Michif — the number of new Indigenous speakers of each of those languages has grown by 30 per cent or more between 2016 and 2021.

The foundational work of the past decades has created a solid platform to build on such successes. Indigenous communities and their supporters are ensuring that coming generations of Indigenous people are learning and sharing the language of their ancestors.

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Some examples: We now have an Indigenous Languages Act in Canada for perpetuity. Indigenous-led gatherings focused on Indigenous language resurgence and continuation are being regularly held around the country, such as the annual Supporting Indigenous Language Revitalization gathering and the international Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium scheduled in June 2024 in Victoria.

These gatherings bring together Indigenous language speakers and learners, community leaders, program developers, educators, and policymakers invested in the revitalization of Indigenous languages.

When I was a new language revitalization scholar 20 years ago, the narrative focused on sensationalizing the “last surviving speakers” of languages heading for extinction. Indigenous language mentions in journalism and government typically had a mourning tone.

As Indigenous language learners, speakers, teachers and advocates, our focus is hope. What was once predicted to perish is in fact very much alive. Indigenous language speakers of all ages are visible across the country, using their language skills in real life rather than a historic demonstration of a time gone by.

It is time now to launch from here.

Funding and expertise from institutions like governments and universities, who hold major reconciliation responsibilities, could share the load of developing pedagogy and supporting infrastructure — essential to the teaching of any language.

And it’s not just big-picture work that needs doing — one big or small action at a time — we all have influence. From a welcome sign in the language(s) of the territory in a store window, to advocating for and participating in the restoration of Indigenous place names, or replacement of imposed colonial street names, everyone in Canada has a role.

It needn’t be complex. Your seniors’ residence could display in their entrance a visual land acknowledgment in the territory language. Your strata council meetings could be started with an oral acknowledgment of territories and peoples therein.

Other ways to support: Learn more about the language and lands of the Indigenous people of the territory where you live. Bring families and neighbours along on your learning journey. Advocate for Indigenous languages to be taught in all schools.

These are living examples of the commitment that the University of Victoria has pledged to uphold in its new strategic plan — The teaching ʔetal nəwəl | ÁTOL,NEUEL — holds leaders, staff, faculty and students accountable for “respecting the rights of one another; being in right relationship with all things; and upholding the rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

Whatever your influence, I challenge you to take some action. Every one of us has a role to play. Indigenous people and settler-Canadians can contribute to a healing chapter in our shared story of Indigenous languages removal, recovery and revival.

Onowa McIvor is maskékow-ininiw (Swampy Cree) and Scottish-Canadian, a professor of Indigenous Education and Project Director of the national NEȾOLṈEW̱ Research Partnership at the University of Victoria.

Anna Wharton
Anna Wharton

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