Canadians obligated to support indigenous languages

By Amos Keye Jr. and Dr. Carrie Dyck

In Canada’s Indian Residential School system, the 53 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada were suppressed, even demonized, silencing the voices of well over seven generations of Indigenous humanity.

In the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “The intent … was to “kill the Indian in the child.” … those in charge of the schools repeatedly told the children that their language and their culture was worthless and evil.”

What is wrong with this picture?

Adequate language funding

Changing its policy from active suppression to lukewarm support of Indigenous languages, Canada began to distribute $5 million per year to its 644 First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. To put this in context, “[t]he total [provincial] funding for [Ontario] French-language boards for the 2010 to 2011 school year was $1.24 billion…” This is a wonderful example of what adequate language funding could and should be. Can you imagine?

In 2006, the Liberal government decided to increase the $5 million budget to $172.5 million over 10 years; the Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures was established to recommend how the funding should be spent. In 2005 (and $12.5 million later), the recommendations in Towards a New Beginning were released. In response, the then-new Conservative government permanently committed, wait for it — $5 million annually as of 2006.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Intellectual heritage

Indigenous languages encode the distilled wisdom of peoples who have lived here for millennia; they provide wonderfully varied perspectives on how to get along, how to live healthily and how to develop emotional and spiritual intelligence. The following facts about Ongwehón:weh languages provides some inkling of the intellectual heritage of Canada’s Indigenous civilizations:

  • The word Canada derives from the Laurentian word, Kaná:ta’, meaning ‘settlement or town’.
  • The Moral Code of Handsome Lake (in the Cayuga language, “Gaihwí:yo:) is a blueprint for cultivating, nurturing and maintaining a good mind, living well with others and cultivating virtues valued within the Ongwehón:weh. The code is steeped in emotional, social and spiritual intelligence. Each year, the great orators go on the “Gaihwi:yo: Trail” and eloquently recite the code in the participating Longhouse communities in New York State and Eastern Canada. It takes four full days to recite and interpret the code each time.
  • With about 6,000 words and word-parts, Ongwehón:weh languages have elegant expressive powers: for example, the Cayuga word for the Canadian constitution is Hodiyanehsronni:gó:wah, which means ‘Great Law Created by Men’; the word for parliament is Ganonhsowanenhgó:wah or ‘Pre-eminent Great House’.

While all of Canada’s Indigenous languages have writing systems, most of the distilled wisdom in these languages is passed on from speaker to speaker, in an oral tradition. Yet, for many Indigenous languages in Canada, the most fluent speakers are more than 60 years of age.

Right to speak

As Treaty Peoples, Canadians have an obligation to support Indigenous languages: Section 35 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and subsequent court cases recognize and protect “non-extinguished” Indigenous rights that “were integral to the distinctive culture of the specific Aboriginal group” before European contact. These rights include the right to speak an Indigenous language.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls on Canada’s Treaty Peoples and post-secondary institutions in particular, “… to create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages.” As called for in the Principles of Truth and Reconciliation, we need to consult with Indigenous scholars, wisdom keepers and elders, so that we can embed new frameworks of Indigenous inclusion and Indigenous knowledge throughout our discourse and in our institutions.

Above all, we must understand the residential school context that created language endangerment. We owe it to the next seven generations to support the Indigenous Peoples of Canada in their efforts to maintain their languages. Only then will we move beyond the current Third World conditions of Indigenous humanity in Canada and put into action a new epiphany of conscience, so that Canada’s Indigenous voices will be heard again.

Da:netoh! (That’s our final word.)

Dr. Carrie Dyck is associate dean, research and graduate programs, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and associate professor, Department of Linguistics.

Amos Key, Jr., was born into the Onkwehonweh Civilization of Ontario and hails from the Six Nations of the Grand River community, in Southern Ontario. He is of Mohawk descent born into the Turtle Clan.

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1 Comment

  1. CANADA is in the eighth stage of genocide and cannot grasp the magnitude of their actions. They are in the same position as the German populace who were not directly involved in the War machine but supported it through their practicing the lifestyle (or National dream) of Germany. Many were practicing Christians and prayed before breakfast and before they went to bed. While these people were conscionable their inertia and reliance on the system benefit program allowed for their ability to see their actions as benevolent as though they were doing God a favor for getting rid of the ‘killers’ of Christ. The idea here was no different- I have distinct recollection of being in a church when a very young boy and being told by the pastor that ‘Indians’ were idolaters and all idolaters were destined to hell. There was no one to adjudicate on my behalf and explain that it was all ‘people’ who rejected God not just those born Indian. While this may seem inconsequential when those around believe this and feel it within their right and privilege to correct you nowhere was this more pointed than in language. Many times I have been ‘corrected’ in sequence by each person who went by as though it were their privilege to do so and each contradicted the last. Sadly I am conversant in a language which is foreign to my place of birth which practices a culture marred by foreign belief and whose education is delivered by a foreign government in a foreign language. I can articulate in the extreme in my substitute language imposed upon me by the methodology which CANADA and her benefactors are loath to express but which was done so by Lord McCauley address to the British
    Parliament 2 February 1835
    ‘I have travelled across the length and breadth of India (any country which Britain had designs on) and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth as I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose self-esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly DOMINATED nation.’
    The fact that it was a PLAN to exterminate our language and culture and education which PLAN was expressly continued in the British manner by CANADA as shown by the address to the queen on 17 December 1867 ‘claims of the Indian tribes to compensation for lands required for settlement purposes will be considered and settled in conformity with the SAME principles which have uniformly governed the British Crown in its dealings with the ABORIGINES’. It is no secret that those dealings were genocidal and are widely condemned by the world.
    Therefore having undertaken that which was requisite upon duties of the ‘Trustee’ as CANADA petitioned to become then as the trustee they are responsible for the genocidal actions as stated above by McCauley and must repatriate that which they have stolen. Also Indians are the true settlors of the ‘Trust’ which CANADA became the Trustee of and if you look into Trust Law they are in an extremely bad position having enriched themselves at our expense but we must not lose sight that they were created and empowered by Britain who also failed in their Trust responsibilities and are jointly liable.
    Therefore it is obligatory upon CANADA to match the funds which are allocated to other language resources in this country to replace that which they have stolen….

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