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Opinion: Canada should provide Indigenous languages with constitutional protection

Critics have said the government’s efforts to revitalize Indigenous languages are colonial and do not engage with Indigenous Peoples on an equal footing.
A book written in Inuktitut. A lack of concrete constitutional guarantees, community credibility and long-term funding has rendered the government's efforts to revitalize Indigenous languages largely ineffective.

Funding for the Canadian government’s legislation supporting Indigenous languages is set to expire in 2024, and so far, there has been no serious mention of extending or renewing the funding in Parliament.

In 2019, the federal government passed Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages, which aimed to revitalize and strengthen Indigenous languages in Canada and recognize their historic oppression. The government promised to allocate $334 million over a five-year pay period.

As we approach the end of that funding period, doubts and pessimism surrounding the legislation’s efficacy continue to abound. And the lack of concrete constitutional guarantees, community credibility and long-term funding has rendered the government’s efforts largely ineffective.

Legislation faces criticisms

Bill C-91 was developed by the Department of Canadian Heritage in collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) and the Métis Nation of Canada.

The purpose of the legislation was to affirm Indigenous Peoples’ rights through language preservation, recognized by section 35 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, it has faced criticism from the beginning.

The ITK labelled the bill “colonial,” saying it was largely unreliable with no mechanism to guarantee the allocation of funding by the federal government.

The organization withdrew from collaborating on the legislation, and ITK president Natan Obed said: “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.”

Experts have also criticized the legislation for not clearly outlining Indigenous language rights. Despite promoting the revitalization of Indigenous languages through community consultation, Bill C-91 lacks substantive guidelines on how to conduct Indigenous consultations for improving language initiative programs in Canada.

As a consequence, the legislation remains largely performative, and serves more to reconcile settler guilt and complicity for past linguistic oppression of Indigenous people, rather than create any substantive programs for Indigenous language revitalization.

Inadequate funding

Garry Anaquod from the Saskatchewan Indigenous Culture Centre, said that even though Indigenous language programs are better funded than in past years, it is still “never quite enough.” Anaquod argues that in order to revitalize Indigenous languages, funding needs to cover the wages of Indigenous language teachers, the production of Indigenous dictionaries and the extension of Indigenous immersion programs across Canada.

The 2017-2019 Indigenous Languages legislation promised to allocate 89.9 million dollars. By comparison, Bill C-91’s 334 million dollars certainly seems like a step up.

Even so, funding remains scarce and insufficient for wide-scale Indigenous language revitalization. Indigenous language programs across Canada still report experiencing financial undercuts and institutional barriers when it comes to applying for government funding.

Language Initiative Programs are community programs, advocacy groups and non-profit organizations devoted to strengthening Indigenous languages in Canada. Currently, there are 33 prominent programs in Canada listed by the Foundation of Endangered Languages Canada.

Examples include The Blackfeet Community College which provides access to educational programs, resources and skills training alongside the promotion and practice of Blackfeet culture and language. Another one is the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute which holds annual language immersion programs to teach the Gwich'in language while providing training for traditional skills such as hunting, fishing, medicine and survival.

Online software such as Algonquian Linguistic Atlas provides a linguistic atlas of Algonquin languages in Canada. The above mentioned Language Initiative Programs are all prospective candidates for Bill C-91’s funding parameters.

Overcoming institutional barriers

In addition to insufficient funding, the legislation provides the government with a greater say than Indigenous communities when it comes to allocating money. Funding must be approved by the Ministry of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism.

Funding provided through Bill C-91 is on an application basis and must be approved by the Department of Canadian Heritage. While funding is conjointly reviewed alongside The Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages (an independent commission which aims to support Indigenous languages initiatives), the Government of Canada retains a heavy onus on how much and how long funding will sustain these language initiatives.

This can possibly lead to an asymmetrical version of language reconciliation as Indigenous organizations must reconcile themselves to the Crown’s power to obtain funding for the desired language program. The current government funding regime must be scrutinized as practical and bureaucratic constraints limit program output and mute the redistribution of financial instruments to support Indigenous languages and heritage.

Future Indigenous language legislation must remove such barriers when distributing funding for language program initiatives. The government must work with Indigenous community leaders and language organizations on an equal footing to determine how and where money is allocated.

While the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has traditionally protected language rights in Canada, it has been drawn to favour official languages English and French. Indigenous languages have been relegated to receiving piecemeal support from small grant programs and excluded from receiving similar constitutional protections.

Since the Charter was implemented in 1982, it has gone through several revisions. Granting Indigenous languages constitutional protections under section 25 of the Charter may be a starting point. That could provide a strong legal foundation to provide meaningful support that can preserve and revitalize Indigenous languages.

Di Rao does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.