Federal legislation introduced Tuesday hopes to strengthen supports for Indigenous languages

Justin Trudeau addressing the audience in the Health Sciences Building of the University of Saskatchewan. Photo: Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald.

The federal government has introduced a new piece of legislation aimed at strengthening Indigenous languages.

Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages, was given first reading Tuesday. It recognizes the rights of Indigenous peoples and the importance of language as a part of culture.

It would also enable the Minister of Canadian Heritage to enter into different types of agreements or arrangements in respect of Indigenous languages with Indigenous governments or governing bodies and allow federal institutions to translate documents into Indigenous languages or provide interpretation services to aid in the use of an Indigenous language.

A second part of the bill establishes the office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages.

That office would support the efforts of Indigenous people to reclaim, maintain and strengthen Indigenous languages; promote public awareness of the richness and diversity of Indigenous languages; undertake research or studies looking at how to support Indigenous languages; provide services including mediation to facilitate dispute resolution and submit an annual report on the use and vitality of Indigenous languages and the adequacy of funding for Indigenous language initiatives.

According to a news release, the legislation represents the fulfillment of a promise Trudeau made in December 2016 to enact national legislation on Indigenous Languages.

According to data from the 2016 census, only 15.6 per cent of Indigenous people could converse in an Indigenous language, down from 17 per cent in 2011 and 21 per cent in 2006. Only 21 per cent of First Nations and two per cent of Métis could converse in an Indigenous language, while 64 per cent of Inuit could do so.

The proposed legislation supports three calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and elements of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The federal government said that three out of four of the 90 different Indigenous languages UNESCO has identified in Canada are endangered. UNESCO has named 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

“In the realm of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, I am proud to be introducing this important and historic legislation in the House of Commons, said Pablo Rodrigues, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism.

“I want to recognize the extraordinary work done by the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis National Council. I look forward to continuing this important work with them over the coming months.”

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde welcomed the new legislation.

“This is landmark legislation to protect and strengthen Indigenous languages, the original languages of these lands, that embrace our identity, our worldview and our nationhood,” he said.

“No Indigenous language in Canada is safe. But now there is hope. This legislation will support First Nations efforts to keep their languages alive, vital and strong. Canadians and all parliamentarians must support this Bill because we all understand that language is identity, language is culture, language is life.”

The bill marks a giant first step in Canada’s support for our longstanding struggle to preserve, revitalize and promote the use of Michif which has been the most neglected of Canada’s Indigenous languages,” said Métis Nation Minister of Heritage and Culture Clara Morin dal Col.

“I wish to commend the Government of Canada for enabling the Métis Nation to participate in the co-development of this legislation.”

The hope is the final version of the Bill will be passed before the 2019 federal election. Second reading is expected to be held at the earliest possible opportunity.

The Bill must receive three readings in both the House of Commons and the Senate before it can become law.