Norman Williams, Director of Policy with the Aboriginal Affairs branch of Heritage Canada, says many people recognize the gap in government funding for revitalizing aboriginal languages.
“I think most people looking at it would say the funding is not sufficient.”
In June 2009 Senator Serge Joyal introduced a federal bill aimed at revitalizing Canada’s 53 existing First Nations, Inuktitut, and Métis languages indigenous to Canada.
“Aboriginal languages are disappearing and vanishing,” says Senator Joyal. “If we wait another 30 years for something to be done, there will be languages irremediably lost.”
Joyal introduced Bill S-237 as a private member’s bill called “An Act for the advancement of the aboriginal languages of Canada and to recognize and respect aboriginal language rights.”
The act recommends the government support the right of aboriginal governments to use and promote aboriginal languages, increase opportunities for aboriginal persons to become proficient in these languages, and foster a positive attitude among all Canadians toward aboriginal languages.
Joyal, a French-Canadian who has long lobbied for French language and culture rights, says he drafted the bill as a way to draw attention to the issue of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit languages when some of them are at a crucial crossroads for survival.
The chances it will pass in the House of Commons are slim, however, he says, and a Senate bill cannot compel the government to spend money.
With unpredictable year-to-year funding, broken promises for funding, and a greater focus on other priority areas in First Nation communities, the revival of aboriginal languages has been treacherously slow, say many people involved in the effort. Diaspora of aboriginal people in urban centres and a lack of human resources have also weighted down the effort.
In 2005 a task force commissioned by the Department of Canadian Heritage turned over a report to the federal government on how to support aboriginal languages and cultures.
The report noted that large language groups like the Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut are viable, having at least 25,000 speakers. But it also noted that all languages, including those considered viable, are losing ground and are endangered.
The report, “Towards a New Beginning,” made recommendations that included the creation of a national centre with a budget of $160 million over 10 years to help preserve, revitalize, and promote Aboriginal languages and cultures – a centre that was promised by the Minister of Canadian Heritage in 2002.
But with two changes of government in the following years, the centre was scrapped. The Aboriginal Languages Initiative still exists, however, and offers funding for revitalization projects.
Keren Rice, Linguistics Professor at the University of Toronto, has been working on projects related to the preservation of indigenous languages for many years. She says many government documents and reports have highlighted the need for more action.
“There’s a lot about what the government should be doing,” she says.
She says the government can provide a framework but the real effort has to come from communities.
“You’d like to see the government there and supportive, but what’s really important are the people actually doing it.”