Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today in support of Bill C-91, an act respecting indigenous languages.
I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the unceded ancestral lands of the Algonquin people.
Before getting into the details of the bill, I would like thank our colleagues, particularly the members of the heritage committee, who worked very diligently to get this bill through the committee stage, as well as those who are not committee members, such as our friends from Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou and Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, for their dedication and hard work in supporting this bill.
I am also pleased to speak about the need for Bill C-91. As members are aware, Bill C-91 has been co-developed by three national indigenous organizations, namely the ITK, the AFN and the Métis National Council. It is in direct response to a number of very important things that have happened both in Canada and internationally.
First and foremost, it is in direct response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report's calls to action 13, 14 and 15. I will elaborate on that later.
It is also a direct result of our commitments to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As members are aware, Bill C-262 is now in front of the other House. It was adopted by this House and is something our government and the Prime Minister have committed to implementing.
There are many ways to look at languages, but however we look at them, they are one of the most important elements of our lives, one of the most important aspects of connection to the people, the land and their way of life.
In Canada, there are currently 90 indigenous languages. As we mark UNESCO's International Year of Indigenous Languages, we have to understand that, sadly, 75% of those 90 languages are on the verge of extinction. That is quite shocking. For some languages only one or two speakers are alive. I was recently in London, Ontario, and met with some elders from the Oneida Nation. They have 48 speakers of their language. Sadly, those 48 speakers are all over the age of 65. Not a lot of young people are speaking the Oneida language. That language is probably at risk of becoming extinct within the next generation. It is something that is quite urgent. Given the history of failure on the part of successive governments to protect languages, I think it is long overdue that we entrench this into law once and for all.
When we speak about how we got here, it was through a process of colonization on the part of the government in the last 152 years formally as a country, but since settlers first came to North America. We know that over the decades, languages were eroded, primarily I would argue because of programs put together by the government. Of course, one of the most important aspects of it is the effects of residential schools on generation after generation of indigenous people who have lost their language. We know that residential schools played such an important role in that.
I want to quote from the Prime Minister's speech at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly on December 6, 2016, where he stated:
We know all too well how residential schools and other decisions by governments were used as a deliberate tool to eliminate Indigenous languages and cultures. If we are to truly advance reconciliation, we must undo the lasting damage that resulted.
I just want to walk colleagues through an experience I had this past month.
I went to Moosonee and met with Tony, who is a residential school survivor. He is in his sixties and is originally from the Moosonee area. When he was about five, he was taken to the St. Anne's Indian Residential School, along with his siblings. They were there for about 10 years. During that time, the entire way of life he was used to was taken away from him. He basically lost his language and lost his spiritual connection to his people. He was unable to reconnect with his family, because his sisters and brothers were separated in separate dorms. He was simply unable to connect with his family when he got back. He went through a very difficult process in establishing himself. He is now a very successful businessman. He has four children. He was trying to tell us how important language is to him, but sadly, he is unable to speak the language and pass it on to the next generation. I think that is the critical moment we are facing today.
Another comment was from a Tlicho elder and language specialist, Mary Siemens. She talked about the connection between indigenous languages and cultural identity. She said:
Our culture depends on our language, because it contains the unique words that describe our way of life. It describes name-places for every part of our land that our ancestors traveled on. We have specific words to describe the seasonal activities, the social gatherings, and kin relations.
That is a profound quote that describes the connection she has to the language and culture.
I want to walk through some of the major elements of this legislation. First and foremost, this would be a framework. It would be a living document. We have been putting together a framework that would look at indigenous languages in a holistic way. It would be dynamic and would allow for a distinctions-based approach to the protection of indigenous languages. It would not be an Ottawa-based solution to the challenges of indigenous languages. It would be a framework that would allow indigenous communities, based on the notion of self-determination and respect for each of the nations and language groups, to define what was important to them and define how those languages would be protected. The bill would be required to be reviewed every five years in this House as well as outside. It would adapt as languages grew and as situations changed so that support would continue as we continue the reconciliation journey together with indigenous peoples.
Just to put it in context, when we have a language like Oneida, where we have only 48 language speakers, and we have languages like Cree, which has many more speakers, the needs and the ways to protect these languages are different. What may be important for one group may not be the same for others. I think the framework we have put together really contemplates that. It would allow for this level of flexibility to ensure that it was distinction-based and that it enabled each and every community to establish an action plan for themselves.
I want to talk about one of the other major aspects of this bill. That is the establishment of a national commissioner of indigenous languages. This is something that is very important.
For the first time, we would entrench in legislation a commissioner who would oversee indigenous languages. The commissioner would be supported by three directors, and together they would work with indigenous communities and nations to develop programs and processes that would allow communities to advance their requirements.
When we look at the framework for the indigenous languages commissioner, we have a concrete plan that would be a starting point. It would not be an end point; it would be a starting point that would turn the tide on the loss of these languages.
From that, there would be support from the federal government, which, as we can see in budget 2019, would be a significant investment in the right direction. We would invest $333 million over the next five years to support this initiative. This is currently being debated as part of the budget implementation act. As we know, it would be a significant change from the $89 million over three years we currently have, which is roughly $30 million a year, for the aboriginal languages initiative. This significant change in funding would accelerate the protection of indigenous languages.
It is very important that we protect indigenous languages. I bring it back to my personal experience, which I have spoken about previously in the House. I know that the Minister of Canadian Heritage has also spoken many times about languages. For both of us, the primary language we speak at home is neither English nor French. We both came to Canada at a relatively young age. My family speaks Tamil. At home, it is the primary language. Over the last 35 years, there has been a serious conflict in Sri Lanka over one language and the ability of people to use that language and access services in that language. Over 100,000 people have died as a result of it.
The language I speak at home is foundational to my life. It has defined virtually every aspect of who I am, how I live my life and what I do and do not do. If I did not have that connection to the language, I would be a different person today. The struggle I have is that I have two young daughters, who are eight and 10, and I struggle with how to pass it on to them and make sure they speak the language fluently and have the opportunity to learn and understand the culture and the context the way I was able to understand. Regrettably, I actually do not read or write the language, but even then, I am able to understand it and live in that world. It is a struggle I face.
Relatively speaking, this is a language that has incredible international support. It is institutionalized in many universities. It is the official language in countries like Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere, so it is protected. When we compare that language with indigenous languages, it is a completely different situation. We have failed to support, revitalize, protect and expand indigenous languages, and that is why time is so critical. That is one of the reasons our friends opposite, in both the Conservative Party and the NDP, worked very closely with us in getting this legislation through the committee process as well as through this House.
The urgency of implementing this legislation now cannot be understated. I have visited communities in the last several months that have gone from having six language speakers to five. There are many like that around the country. My colleagues probably have a good sense of that as well.
This cannot wait until the next Parliament. We cannot defer this to the next generation, because sadly, there will not be a next generation that can speak the language or protect and preserve it.
A couple of months ago, I was in Victoria at the Royal British Columbia Museum. It has an indigenous languages exhibit that really speaks to how languages are looked at right now. We are at a point where certain languages are only available in museums. The last speakers were recorded by academics, and they are preserved, but there is really no process or plan to revive and revitalize those languages. That is the primary reason for the urgency of the legislation before us.
Finally, on the overall aspect of reconciliation, Canada has played an important role in keeping these languages in the state they are in today. This did not happen because of indigenous people. This happened because of government policies. Government policies need to change to support this process of revitalization, and that is a major responsibility of the federal government. It is the other impetus for us to support the bill and push it forward.
Our commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is critical. It is something that the government and the Prime Minister have accepted, and we are in the process of implementing it. Implementing this legislation is an important step and milestone as we look at actually entrenching the principles of UNDRIP in law.
This loss of languages is dire. It is critical that we revive them and support them through revitalization. It is also important to recognize that over the years, language has been a form of resistance. Even though they lost these languages, we know that some people, late in their lives, even with their last breath, were speaking their language, were speaking their mother tongue, and that was important, because it was a form of resistance.
We need to acknowledge all the language keepers, all the people over the years who have struggled to keep these languages alive: the languages nests, the elders, the communities and the schools where languages are taught. We need to thank them for the enormous amount of work they have done to support these languages to keep them alive. It is an appropriate way to close, because it is their strength and their commitment that will allow indigenous languages to be revived and revitalized and used in daily life. I hope that one day we can celebrate the survival of all these indigenous languages.