Indigenous Languages Act sparks controversy

Heads of Delegation for the six Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations at the Senior Arctic Officials' meeting in Juneau, 2017 (Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström)  

In time for the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, Canada has tabled an Indigenous Languages Act, which has been received with mixed reactions and was even termed “colonial” by some indigenous groups. It has also given rise to questions about funding for language education, as well as Indigenous rights.

The state of Indigenous languages in the Arctic countries is critical, but through the Year of Indigenous Languages, there is hope to strengthen the appreciation of their importance and their links to identity, culture, and human rights.

Reclaim, revitalize, strengthen

At the beginning of February, Canada’s Minister Heritage and Multiculturalism, the Honourable Pablo Rodriguez,  introduced Bill C-91, the Indigenous Languages Act, in order to “reclaim, revitalize, strengthen and maintain” the country’s over 90 indigenous languages. 
It will set up the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages and “work with provinces, territories, Indigenous representative organizations and Indigenous governments to create effective support for Indigenous languages in Canada through a variety of mechanisms.” The aim is to turn the bill into a law before the House of Commons rises in June.
Number of speakers plummets

According to UNESCO, 75% of Canada’s Indigenous Languages are endangered, some being only spoken by a handful of elders. And the trend is downhill.
In 2016, 15.6% of Canada’s Indigenous people affirmed that they could converse in an Indigenous language – a rapid decline from 21% in 2006. Furthermore, large differences exist between the country’s distinct language groups: 64% of Inuit, 21% of First Nations people and, far behind, only 2% of Métis confirmed their language proficiency.
This reflects bigger problems of Indigenous rights and political representation. After all, it was also only last year that Canadian Members of Parliament were granted interpretation services for speeches in Indigenous languages in the House of Commons.
Insecure funding
The Bill comes two years after the Government of Canada invested $89.9 million over three years earmarked for promoting Indigenous languages and cultures.
However, some communities question the funding that comes with the bill, as well as the status and rights of indigenous languages compared to Canada’s official languages, English and French.
Another concern is that the funding for the federal bureaucratic structures set up by the bill to divert money away from language programs and projects. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the National Representational Organization Protecting and Advancing the Rights and Interests of Inuit in Canada,states: “Unlike provincial and territorial languages commissioners, the national indigenous languages commissioner will be a powerless advocacy body, perpetually burdened by costly and onerous reporting duties. It will be controlled by the federal government and serve to consume resources best directed to indigenous peoples ourselves.”
In the meantime, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is planning to change the allocation process of $2 billion annual funds for First Nations on-reserve education, with the goal of a more predictable funding for schools.

Officially, the Bill was co-developed by the Department of Canadian Heritage and Indigenous People representatives, namely the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the Métis National Council. However, despite being listed on the website of the Co-Development process, ITK clearly distanced itself from the bill.
While the AFN and the Métis National Council applauded the introduction of the bill, there has been strong criticism from ITK and other indigenous organizations, who have called the act a colonial symbol. 
Strong criticism

Several Inuit organizations issued a statement at the beginning of February, asserting that “Inuit participation in and support for this legislative initiative has been contingent on the expectation that any bill would be distinctions-based and include substantive Inuktut-specific provisions that build on existing rights for Inuktut.”
ITK considers the bill’s lack of Inuit-specificity as a symbol of its colonial character: “The absence of any Inuit-specific content suggests this bill is yet another legislative initiative developed behind closed doors by a colonial system and then imposed on Inuit.”
Replication of colonial policies

The Maskwacìs Cultural College (MCC), a ‘Centre of Excellence in Academics and Cree Indigenous Knowledge’, stated in a position paper that “they do not agree with a consultation process on developing an Indigenous language legislation nor do they support the Federal Government of Canada’s plan to legislate the language.”
The Maskwacìs Cultural College focused its criticism on the intention of regulating their language, which reminds the Four Chiefs of Maskwacìs of previous attempts to (de-)construct indigenous identities in Canada. The potential regulations of Indigenous languages that could develop from the bill have repercussions on the core identity of Indigenous peoples, which has often been defined by disassociating it from a colonizing society.
“The Treaties (Maskwacìs Nêhiyawêwin Declaration – June 21, 2016 and United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) reinforce our language rights. We cannot risk these rights to be further legislated by the Federal Government of Canada. 
Nêhiyawêwin cannot be advanced and regulated in the same way as the official languages act for French and English in Canada.”
Language is identity
Nevertheless, all Indigenous groups seem to agree on the connection of language to identity and culture and on the importance of keeping Indigenous languages alive. During an interview on CBC news, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde commented: “Canadians and all parliamentarians must support this bill, because we all understand that language is identity, language is culture, language is life.”
Likewise, Åsa Larsson Blind, president of the Saami Council explains to HNN: “A language is so much more than just a means of communication: It’s a source of knowledge. Sometimes we simplify what a language is and the true value and meaning of the diversity of languages.”
2019: Year of Indigenous Languages
The rapid loss of indigenous languages is also the reason behind the United Nations’ adoption of 2019 as International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) in line with the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. 40% of the estimated 6,700 languages spoken around the world are in danger of disappearing. Most of those 40% are indigenous languages, which “puts the cultures and knowledge systems to which they belong at risk.”
Unclear impact, but hopes
Which impact the IYIL will have on Indigenous languages in the Arctic is unclear, but the hope is that it will raise a lasting understanding of the situation and the importance of Indigenous languages.
“I hope it sticks: I hope that from now on, people recognize the value of Indigenous languages and help to support and promote them. Language is just part of a very complicated puzzle of life, and it’s a huge part of people’s lives and well-being,” Lenore Grenoble, linguistics professor specialized in Slavic and Arctic Indigenous languages at the University of Chicago, says to HNN.
Pointing to states’ obligations
Åsa Larsson Blind, president of the Saami Council, is also optimistic. “My hope is that it will create awareness of the great number of indigenous languages all over the world that are in a tremendously threatened situation,” she affirms to HNN. “I also have great hope for the outcome document that will point to the obligations that states have in supporting and creating possibilities for the Indigenous languages to thrive.” 
Nadezhda Mamontova of the University of Oxford, who studies spatial knowledge, language, and adaptation among Siberia’s Ewenki people, reveals to HNN: “I am not sure that the International Year can make any real impact on the state of indigenous languages in Russia. The most important initiative is the State Foundation for Support of Minority Languages established by the government in 2019.”
“But they had planned it long time ago and this foundation has appeared as an alternative to the compulsory teaching of indigenous languages and other minority languages.” However, Mamontova retains some hope: “In general, the year may help to bring a bit more attention (and funding) to the problem of language transmission and education.”
Mixed picture within Arctic
The state of Indigenous languages in all Arctic countries seems similarly dire. Talking to HNN, Grenoble summarizes: “The state of Indigenous languages, their overall vitality and their legal status, varies greatly from country to country, and even from region to region within a county. Kalaallisut (or Greenlandic), an Inuit language closely related to Inuktitut and other Canadian Inuit languages, is in the strongest position. It is the national and official language of Greenland, and is spoken by the overwhelming majority of the population.”
The Nordics: one people - different countries and languages

Referring to the Saami in the Nordic countries, Larsson Blind clarifies: “All of the Saami languages are threatened, because there are so few speakers. We are not that many Saami and we have different Saami languages. Some are almost extinct in practice already. But there is a great awareness now within Sápmi and among Saami people about the importance of keeping the different Saami languages.” 
She adds: “It’s also a great challenge that we are people in four countries. The state borders create boundaries: We have different administrative systems, ambitions and language acts in the various parts of Sápmi.”
From individual projects to long-term programs
Despite good methods, best practices, and the knowledge of what is needed, the main problem appears to be the funding of these initiatives: “We have good examples of projects here in Sápmi, which have made tremendous change locally. The knowledge of what is needed to save the language is there, but we need more support to be able to not only have one project here and there, but to establish it as a way of teaching the language and way to support the languages all over Sápmi.”
Larsson Blind also points to how Indigenous languages and rights are deeply intertwined: “This is of course also connected to the Nordic states not recognizing the Saami rights fully. That reflects on the language rights as well.”
Russia - no language transmission between generations
In Russia, “most of the indigenous languages are endangered, but the situation varies from one region to another. Even within a single language, there might be significant differences between the dialects in terms of language maintenance. However, in most cases there is no language transmission between generations. One exception is the Nenets language,” analyses Mamontova. “The problem with the Russian legislation in relation to indigenous languages is that it remains on paper.”
State of emergency for languages in Alaska
In Alaska, 20 indigenous languages became official in 2014. However, one of the state’s languages, Eyak, died with its last speaker in 2008. And last year, Alaska’s Governor Bill Walker declared the state of emergency for the state’s indigenous languages.
In conclusion, Larsson Blind emphasises: “Language is so connected to culture and the way people live. When we talk about languages, of course we talk about children’s possibilities to learn their language. And that is so important because when we look upon it in a bigger context, it’s the possibility to carry on with our culture. And the culture is what makes us a people. So I think that the biggest threat for the languages is that we simplify the role that language has for culture and the way of life. It’s important to get the bigger picture of what it’s all about.”