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Indigenous languages are dying in Canada. Here's how people are trying to save them

The fear is that, over time, the vast majority of Canada's Indigenous languages will go extinct. But there's a movement afoot to not just preserve them, but to get them back in active use.
A stop sign in Iqaluit, Nunavut, written in English, French, and Inuit. (Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson)

Melissa Daniels can remember the day she decided to ditch "colonial law" and return to her hometown in the North.

It was early 2015 and the Harvard-educated nurse-turned-lawyer was working for one of the top Aboriginal law firms in Canada, on a case for her Indigenous community, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, that would have slowed oil sands development on their traditional territory, but appeared to be losing.


Daniels was also working on a project with her First Nation, in the northern reaches of Alberta, that documented traditional laws by interviewing Elders to collect creation stories.

"Some people call them stories, some people call them myths, but really it's about our laws and how they came to exist," said Daniels, who relied on the help of translators. But she realized the picture she was getting was superficial.

"I was missing key pieces, and the reason why was that I didn't know my language," she recalled. "After that, I realized I needed to come home and learn my language to understand our laws and see how we apply them."

Now back in her home community of Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, Daniels is focused on learning Denesuline — a set of dialects spoken by Dene across northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta and up to the east arm of Great Slave Lake. (Because most websites, including this one, cannot handle the characters found in Denesuline, all characters from that language have been anglicized.)

She represents a growing push towards revitalizing Indigenous languages in Canada — which although recognized in certain parts of the country and deemed "a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society", are largely in decline. It's something that has the ear of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who earlier this month said that restoring Indigenous languages is key to preventing youth suicides that have plagued some First Nations communities — though he stopped short of pledging to grant official federal status to those languages, like English and French.


'I was missing key pieces, and the reason why was that I didn't know my language.'

The numbers are stark. Of the approximately 60 languages spoken by Canada's first peoples, only three — Nehiyaw (Cree), Inuktitut and Anishinaabe (Ojibway) — are expected to survive. The situation is so precarious, advocates are taking their fight to the country's highest court, arguing that Indigenous people have a constitutional right to be taught in their own languages.

While federal funding for French and English language schooling sits at approximately $4,000 per child, Indigenous languages receive only about $4 per child from the federal government, Ellen Gabriel told the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York in May. Gabriel is a leader of the Haudenosaunee confederacy (referred to by English settlers as the Iroquois.) The Assembly of First Nations pegs spending on language education around $185 to $215 per student, but that number is only for First Nations schools, and doesn't account for children who are not enrolled in them, or Inuit or Metis children.

For Metis artist and language advocate Christi Belcourt, the inequity is unacceptable.

"I think spending on French is a good thing. But we have 64 languages. Should not comparable investments be made? Especially since our languages are in crisis and are dying," she wrote recently online in a call for more federal funding for Indigenous languages.


"There is no easy way to put that. Canada has all but killed our languages. The federal government is 100% responsible for the loss of Indigenous languages so they have an obligation to fund restoration."

A Denesuline sign in La Loche, Saskatchewan. (Wikimedia Commons/Kayoty)

Languages on the brink

Denesuline (also known as Chipewyan) is one of 11 official languages in the Northwest Territories. The government of that territory has also given official status to a eight other languages, aside French and English — Cree, South Slavey, North Slavey, Tlicho, Gwich'in, Inuvialuktun, Inuinnaqtun, and Inuktitut.

The official status means that residents are guaranteed certain essential services in their language, like in territorial court and the proceedings of the legislature. Other government services, particularly health care, may also be provided in Indigenous languages where there is significant demand. An independently-appointed territorial language commissioner monitors the status of languages and the government's provision of language services, and each region has its own representatives who sit on a territorial board of language officials.

Gabriel lays some blame on the colonial laws of assimilation, including Canada's Indian Residential School system, which took Indigenous children from their homes and placed them in schools designed to strip them of their language and culture. She adds, however, that ithe continuous decline is due in large part to the "neglectful underfunding of Indigenous languages" by the government, and the continued implementation of assimilationist policies that strip cultures of their language through the dispossession of land, whether through unsustainable development, inaction on climate change or racism.


Though work at the community level toward language revitalization is most effective, Gabriel said it is often put on the backburner as marginalized communities struggle to tackle other issues, often related to basic survival.

"It must be understood that Indigenous communities' human resource capacities are already strained. And so states must remain committed and accountable for the financial support needed in Indigenous language revitalization," said Gabriel, who used her address to call for adequate financial support based on Canada's promised implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous languages are in a national state of emergency. No expense should be spared for land-based immersion. Public schools can't do it.

— Christi Belcourt (@christibelcourt)May 5, 2016

Gabriel is not the only representative calling for funding parity when it comes to Indigenous languages in Canada.

Recently, University of Winnipeg professor Lorena Fontaine and Toronto-based lawyer David Leitch announced their plans to launch a legal challenge that argues Indigenous peoples have the right to be taught in their own languages under section 35 of the Constitution.

Leitch has long advocated for the rights of First Nations to educate their children in their own languages, and believes the federal government has an obligation to publicly fund that education.

Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms only requires the federal government to finance education for Canada's official language minorities; that is, the anglophone minority in Quebec and francophone minorities across the rest of Canada. Otherwise, education remains a provincial or territorial responsibility, off-reserve.


Across the country, access to Indigenous-language education is a patchwork.

While Indigenous languages may be taught in public schools attended by Indigenous children in most provinces, First Nations have no right to educate their children in their own languages. Only in Nova Scotia, BC and Quebec do some First Nations — those with specific education and/or self-government agreements — have the right to determine the language taught their children in public schools.

In Canada's three northern territories, availability of Indigenous-language education is generally a local responsibility, and may require sign-off from the territorial government.

Belcourt believes Canada should pass an Indigenous Languages Act to mandate governments to recognize and fully fund Indigenous immersion schools.

"Serious investments are needed for our languages, not through 'programs' with a shelf life, but with permanent core funding mandated through law," she said. "The public education systems are simply not adaptable to preserve Indigenous languages and create fluent speakers…The only way to preserve the languages is to create fluent speakers."

Leitch argues that language is located at the "core of 'Indianness" and, as such, should be provided for under section 35, which recognizes and affirms the rights of Indigenous peoples as the activities and traditions that are integral to their distinctive cultures.


"There is no reason to believe that the Supreme Court of Canada would regard education in Aboriginal languages as less important for the distinctive cultures of First Nations than education in English and French for the distinctive cultures of Canada's official language minorities," he writes a 2006 paper.

Yes, our language continue to be spoken in various communities, but they are ALL in decline. For many ppl, only access is University.

— âpihtawikosisân (@apihtawikosisan)March 29, 2016

Language 'where we live'

While public education is a named priority for Indigenous peoples concerned with the survival of their languages, there are other methods of revitalization underway that are attempting to move learning out of the classroom and into the home.

"That's where we want the language to live: in our everyday experience," said Dr. Trish Rosborough, a professor in Indigenous Language Revitalization at the University of Victoria (UVic).

"For years, what we've done with Indigenous languages is thought that the school could save our languages for us, so we would teach them to kids at school, but they would only ever use the language in the language class; they weren't using it outside of that setting. So we just really want to bring it to where we live."

Rosborough has partnered with the Dehcho First Nations (DFN) in the Northwest Territories to deliver a Dene Zhatie (South Slavey) immersion program. The two-year diploma program began in the North in January 2015 and has since exposed its 12 enrolled learners to over 300 hours of immersion through a mentor-apprentice model, coupled with classroom-based linguistic instruction, and courses in self-directed language learning and teaching methodologies.


According to DFN language manager Violet Jumbo, one of the language instructors in the program, the goal is to generate a new crop of fluent speakers for the region.

"Our language teachers are retiring and we need new ones, so that's why we started," she said. "We don't want to leave the kids in limbo."

(Meagan Wohlberg)

Last month, the Dehcho students participated in their longest immersion session to-date, heading out to camp along the Mackenzie River near Fort Providence for 10 days and speaking only in Dene Zhatie while they engaged in traditional activities like tanning moose hides, beading, identifying medicinal plants, fishing, and cooking on the fire.

"That's what living languages are about, is using them in our everyday lives," Rosborough said. "So that's why we're going out to camp."

The University of Victoria program is based on the model set out in Berkeley professor Leanne Hinton's book, How to Keep Your Language Alive: A Commonsense Approach to One-On-One Language Learning, which teaches students how to direct their own learning by teaming up with fluent speakers.

"It really is a learner directed program. In fact, Leanne Hinton said the mentor-apprentice model is not a way to teach language; it's a way to learn language, because the responsibility sits with the learner," Rosborough said. "Many of our mentors are elderly and so we're not asking them to learn a whole new set of skills to teach language; what we really want from them is just to be in the language with us."


Because the desire to communicate is so strong, it can be tricky to stop mentors from defaulting to English, so Rosborough teaches students how to redirect their learning by remembering 'survival phrases' in Dene Zhatie like "What is this?" or "What are you doing?" to keep them in the language.

Apart from the required mentor-apprentice hours, where students engage in all sorts of everyday activities with a fluent speaker, the program also offers courses on how people learn languages and equips them with skills in teaching and creating their own educational resources, like videos and lesson plans. They also learn things like grammar and pronunciation from Dene Zhatie instructors.

"It's a beautiful combination where students learn something about the language directly, learn something about what it takes to learn a language, and then have this immersion communicative opportunity to be in the language," Rosborough said. "I really think that's the key to proficiency."

Since the start of the program, Rosborough said the students have gone from almost zero proficiency to being able to give public presentations on the program in their language.

"Last fall, I was flying in on a small plane from Yellowknife to Fort Simpson and there was a community member, a political leader, on the plane, and he said to me, 'It's really interesting to be in the grocery store in town in Fort Simpson and hear the young people using the language, because that never used to happen,'" she said. "These young moms are speaking Dene Zhatie to their children and they're speaking it to each other, so community members are impressed with what they've been able to achieve."


(Meagan Wohlberg)

'Language is in your blood'

Growing up in the small community of Sambaa K'e, Northwest Territories — which just last month legally changed its name from Trout Lake to the original Dene title — Violet Jumbo's primary language was Dene Zhatie.

That's because, she said, the language was spoken in the home. Though Jumbo spent 12 years as a classroom instructor teaching the language to youth, she recognizes that method hasn't been the most effective.

"It has to start at home," she said, and be strengthened on the land. "The elders always say you can't have the language without the culture. The language is stronger when culture and language are together. You can't do one without the other."

Jumbo remembers how difficult it was moving at one point to teach in Hay River, a larger community in the NWT where fewer people speak Dene Zhatie.

"Being born in the language, when you don't speak or hear it, it gets very lonely," she said. "Language is in your blood. It's part of who you are. You have to speak it."

It's the same message that Gabriel emphasized at the United Nations last month, tying Indigenous identity to language.

"Indigenous peoples language is more than a form of communication; it is the voice of the land, it connects us to the land, to our ancestors, our spirituality and is embedded with a richness of traditional knowledge nurturing biodiversity," she said.

For Daniels, who is just beginning her journey of language revitalization, the process is a visibly emotional one.

Beyond growing her vocabulary and proficiency, the free language classes Daniels has been taking in the evenings with Elder and fluent speaker Eileen Beaver have expanded her understanding of Dene philosophy as a whole. which points to her people as action-oriented and practical.

"I've always understood our philosophical underpinning as Dene people [to be] movement," said Daniels, noting that Denesuline is composed of almost 96 percent verbs. "There's never a point where we're very still."

Moreover, her language represents a completely different worldview. "When I say I'm learning my language, it's really about learning to see the world through the eyes of our ancestors, to look at the stars through the eyes of our ancestors, to gain that insight and orientation our ancestors had," she said.

That unique orientation surfaces when Daniels thinks about how the Denesuline word for caribou — etthen — also means 'plenty of stars'.

"The caribou lit up the land like how the stars light up the night sky, and that's why we gave them the same name," Daniels said. "Our language is really beautiful…It's been incredibly healing."

In a world where the environmental devastation of her homelands can be hard to face, she said returning to Denesuline is giving her a renewed hope for the future.

"It is definitely challenging, but I am just so grateful to finally have words to describe how I've been feeling."

Follow Meagan Wohlberg on Twitter: @meaganimous