Task force calls for funding of Aboriginal language project

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The Federal Task Force on Aboriginal Cultures and Language recently
released a 142-page report, calling on the Canadian government to
immediately begin funding Aboriginal language projects before it's too
late.

"Canada's past assimilative actions, particularly the residential school
system, cannot be ignored. Canada's failure to protect First Nation, Inuit
and Metis languages and cultures means it must now provide the resources
necessary to restore them. All federal departments share this
responsibility. However, First Nation, Inuit and Metis peoples must also
take their rightful place as the first and foremost teachers of their own
languages and cultures," read the report.

"Forcibly removing language and culture from individual First Nation, Inuit
and Metis people is tantamount to a breach of Aboriginal and treaty rights,
as well as a breach of the Crown's fiduciary duty, and should therefore be
compensable. It is also our view that Canada's refusal to compensate
individuals who continue to suffer the devastating effects of their loss of
connection to their communities and their languages, cultures and spiritual
beliefs fails to uphold the honour of the Crown. Further, this refusal has
the effect of appearing to relegate First Nation, Inuit and Metis languages
to the position of subjugated languages that can be forcibly removed from
the memories of the people who spoke them, with impunity."

During 16 community consultations held across Canada in 2004, many stated
that the ability to speak one's own language helps people understand who
they are in relation to themselves, their families and their communities,
and to creation itself.

"The exact number of languages and dialects is unknown, but around 61 are
spoken today. First Nations speak 51 languages. Inuit speak various
dialects of Inuktitut and Metis speak Michif, as well as some First Nation
languages."

British Columbia has the greatest language diversity, containing eight of
the 11 language families. But in that province, First Nation generational
language transmission is in serious decline.

Most First Nation languages there are listed as "endangered" because
Interior Salish languages - along with the languages in the Tsimshian
family, Kwakw'ala, Nuu-chah-nulth, and several of the smaller Dene
languages in northern British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and the
Yukon - fell within a range of more than 300, but fewer than 1,000,
speakers.

30 percent or 52 First Nations had endangered languages (less than 50
percent of the adult population were reported speaking the language and
there were few if any young speakers or, although over 80 percent of the
older population spoke the language, there were no identified speakers
under 45 years old).

Research suggests that intergenerational transmission of British Columbia's
First Nation languages has virtually ceased, and that almost no young
children are acquiring the First Nation language in the home. Even among
the population of childbearing age, especially younger parents, very few
individuals are fluent.

American Indian people able to speak a First Nation language well enough to
conduct a conversation fell from 20 percent in 1996 to 16 percent in 2001,
while those speaking it in the home declined from 13 percent to 8 percent.

"It is important to keep in mind that statistics on language tell only a
small part of the story.

"Most of the world's indigenous languages are in danger of extinction,
including those in Canada. Regardless of the number of speakers, all First
Nations, Inuit and Metis languages are equal. There are many reasons why
every effort should be made to save them. First, they are the original
languages of Canada, spoken here millennia before French and English. They
ground First Nation, Inuit and Metis nationhood, are recognized in
treaties, and are entrenched in section 35 of the Canadian Constitution."

The task force made 25 recommendations in the report, released July 27.
They recommend a national language strategy be developed through
community-based planning by First Nation, Inuit and Metis language
communities, as well as by their regional and national representative
organizations, with coordination and technical support to be provided by
the proposed national language organization.

Other recommendations included equitable resources for language support;
that Canada provide funding for First Nation, Inuit and Metis languages
which is, at a minimum, at the same level as that provided for the French
and English languages; and that funding of First Nation schools by the
Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development be provided at the
same level and standard as that provided to Ministries of Education.

Those incarcerated in Canadian jails and prisons should also receive
language-training resources, because what has been missing so far is any
systematic attempt to provide language training to incarcerated First
Nation, Inuit and Metis persons to enable them to participate more deeply
and fully in their own traditions.

"That being said, however, Canada cannot speak our languages for us. Canada
cannot restore them. And Canada cannot promote them among our peoples. We
must take our rightful positions as the first and most appropriate teachers
of our languages and cultures. We must begin by speaking our own languages
to our children in our homes and communities and we must do it daily. We
cannot delegate this task to our schools or leave it for the next
generation. To maintain, revitalize and preserve our languages, we must use
traditional and contemporary methods and strategies in the development of
new approaches."

"We view this foundational report as a new beginning, the first step of
what many described as being a 100-year journey to the revitalization of
our languages and cultures," read the report. "...Restoring their languages
and cultures would ensure that First Nations, Inuit and Metis people remain
strong nations for as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the
river flows."