moved that Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, it is a privilege to rise in this House today to discuss Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages.
I want to begin by acknowledging that this House sits on the ancestral lands of the Algonquin Anishinabeg.
I also want to acknowledge the significant role indigenous people have played in Canada's history, and the importance of our relationship, as a government, with indigenous people. The importance of that history and relationship underpins our indigenous languages legislation. The indigenous languages act is historic. Its impact will be felt by many future generations.
This indigenous languages act is a historic piece of legislation. It will have a profound impact on future generations. I am honoured to have a small role to play in moving this legislation forward.
Before going any further, I want to remind the House why this act is so important.
Before European contact, indigenous people spoke about 90 different languages. These vibrant languages and cultures defined people's identity, customs and spirituality. This changed in a significant and very negative way as European settlers began colonizing the country. This began a process that can only be described as forced isolation and assimilation.
We should not take lightly what assimilation meant. It was a conscious act of taking away a people's identity—their languages and cultures—and replacing it with another. Much of this happened through Indian residential schools.
On June 11, 2008, the Government of Canada acknowledged these mistakes in a statement of apology. That apology stated:
Two primary objectives of the residential school system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. ... Indeed, some sought, as was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child”.
Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.
Over the span of 130 years, more than 150,000 indigenous children were sent to residential schools. Their parents, often threatened with jail time, were forced to give them up. In these schools, indigenous children were abused, neglected and isolated from their culture. They were beaten or humiliated for talking to each other in their own language. Many children grew so afraid that they just stopped speaking altogether, and in losing their language, they lost a part of themselves. It is a sad legacy and a dark part of the nation's history.
There are other factors that have had a detrimental impact on indigenous languages and cultures. They include creating reserves and relocating people away from their traditional homelands and ways of life; moving indigenous communities to non-indigenous communities, such as big cities where there were limited supports in place; separating children from their families and communities and placing them with non-indigenous foster parents; and putting a disproportionately high number of indigenous people in the corrections system, a place where youth and adults had limited support for their languages. This period in our history has led to a loss of culture, identity and language.
According to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, of the roughly 90 indigenous languages spoken in Canada, none is considered to be safe. In fact, UNESCO has designated three-quarters of the living indigenous languages in Canada as endangered.
The state of indigenous languages in Canada has been the subject of much research and many reports. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples reported that speakers of an indigenous language formed a small percentage of the indigenous population itself; that indigenous language speakers were aging; and that with fewer and fewer young fluent speakers, even the languages heard most frequently were in danger of disappearing.
In 2004, the government of the day created the Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures. This task force included representatives of the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis Nation.
In 2005, the task force released a comprehensive report containing 25 recommendations, which were submitted to the Government of Canada. These recommendations were aimed at preserving, revitalizing and promoting First Nation, Inuit and Métis languages and culture. Sadly, the response to this report was muted, and the vitality of indigenous languages continued to deteriorate.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission challenged Canada to act on these issues. The TRC had three specific calls to action addressing languages. Call to action 13 was to acknowledge that aboriginal rights include aboriginal language rights. Call to action 14 was to enact an aboriginal languages act founded on a number of principles, including that aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, that the federal government has a responsibility to adequately fund the revitalization and preservation of aboriginal languages and that this work is best managed by aboriginal people themselves and their communities. Call to action 15 was to appoint an aboriginal languages commissioner, in consultation with aboriginal groups, and that this commissioner would help promote aboriginal languages and report on federal funding of language initiatives.
Clearly there is a need for urgent action. We have to act now, because as we all understand, language is who we are. It is our identity. The Prime Minister recently said that languages are the fundamental building blocks of our sense of self. It is how we transmit our heritage and culture. It is how we tell our own stories and connect to the world.
As someone who is lucky enough to speak three languages, while trying hard to learn a fourth, I know just how strongly related our language and identity are. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be prevented from speaking my mother tongue, the only language I spoke for several years, Spanish.
However, that is exactly what happened to thousands of indigenous children. They were prevented from speaking their language. They could no longer use it. We cannot change the past, but we can and must work together to change the future.
As national chief Bellegarde said to me a couple of days ago, “We've drawn a line in the sand—no more indigenous languages lost.”
Restoring and strengthening indigenous languages is a fundamental part of reconciliation, and reconciliation drives much of our work. That is exactly why, for example, every minister's mandate letter includes direction to renew our relationship with indigenous peoples, a relationship based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.
As we speak, our government is working in partnership with indigenous peoples to improve their access to clean drinking water, fight poverty in indigenous communities and reunite families that have been separated by discriminatory policies.
That is also why, in Budget 2017, we allocated $90 million over three years to help preserve, promote and revitalize indigenous languages.
Most recently, members of Parliament agreed to support interpretation services so that indigenous languages can be used in this House. That is huge.
Although these are positive steps, more work is needed, and I will continue to work with my colleagues to improve the lives of indigenous peoples. Increasing the vitality of indigenous languages requires a framework designed with the long term in mind, and I am proud to say that this bill would do just that. It would do exactly that.
This is a historic bill. It is absolutely essential, not just for indigenous peoples but for all Canadians. This bill draws a clear line in the sand. It is the product of two years of hard work with indigenous peoples across the country, in every region. It all began with a promise made by the Prime Minister in December 2016 that Canada would enact a law to preserve, promote and revitalize first nations, Inuit and Métis languages. He also promised that the law would be developed in co-operation with indigenous peoples.
To that end, in June 2017, my hon. predecessor and the leaders of the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis National Council stated their very firm and clear intention to work together to draft this legislation. Following that declaration, the government took action and we began to work together.
In over eight months, the Department of Canadian Heritage led more than 20 round tables across the country with a wide range of experts, practitioners and academics of indigenous languages. The feedback from those sessions, as well as those conducted by each of our partners, was used as the basis of the 12 fundamental principles that set the foundation for this legislation.
My officials also conducted some 30 intensive engagement sessions across Canada with first nations, Inuit and Métis participants. Our online portal collected some 200 questionnaires and electronic submissions. Sessions were held, and presentations were made, as requested, with self-governing and modern treaty groups.
Other organizations that provided feedback include the Native Women's Association of Canada, the National Association of Friendship Centres and the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres, and the list could go on.
My colleagues in the House have also worked hard, talking with Canadians and indigenous people about the need for this very important legislation. As members can see, the process leading to the legislation has been very robust.
As I said, the bill is based on 12 principles that were established and approved by the four partners. The bill reflects and embodies these principles.
This bill provides a concrete framework to help meet the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which covers indigenous languages. Furthermore, I want to remind the House that our government committed to implementing the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This bill directly addresses three of those calls to action directly relating to indigenous languages. These calls to action have the support of indigenous peoples, and our government clearly and sincerely committed to implementing them. I am pleased to say today that this promise has been kept.
Now, I want to talk about the mechanisms set out in our bill. To start, the bill recognizes that the rights of indigenous peoples recognized and affirmed by the Constitution Act, 1982, include rights related to indigenous languages. This is fundamental.
Our bill also includes measures to facilitate the transfer of adequate, stable and long-term funding to support the reclamation, revitalization, strengthening and maintenance of indigenous languages. It obliges me, as minister, to consult various governments and indigenous governing bodies so that we may achieve this goal together. This is a testament to our commitment to investing in indigenous peoples and their communities, to investing and working together for their future.
Our bill also establishes an office of the commissioner of indigenous languages. This office will help promote indigenous languages, conduct research and help indigenous peoples defend their language rights. The bill also presents a legislative framework that will enable the Government of Canada to enter into agreements with provincial, territorial, indigenous and other governments. This will ensure that we can take the unique needs of various indigenous peoples and communities into account.
The ultimate goal of the bill's provisions is to help indigenous peoples recover and preserve proficiency in their language, to ensure the survival of their culture. It is important to note that this bill was intentionally drafted so as not to be either restrictive or exhaustive. On the contrary, it was designed to be flexible, so that it may be adapted to every possible reality.
This past Tuesday, the Métis National Council said that this bill is a “giant first step in Canada’s support for our longstanding struggle to preserve, revitalize and promote the use of Michif”. The Assembly of First Nations described it as “landmark legislation” and said that because of it, “now there is hope”.
Some might say that this legislation does not go far enough. In fact, it was drafted in such a way that it can be built upon. It offers the possibility of incorporating agreements that will be developed in line with the aspirations and needs of each indigenous nation. These agreements will guarantee that the unique circumstances of each distinct group, the first nations, the Inuit and the Métis, can be reflected and addressed. This bill is flexible and takes into account the needs of different groups, different communities, different regions. As I said many times, we are committed to keep talking and working together until this legislation is fully implemented.
I recently learned that the word “Dakota” means allies. I believe that this is a good way to describe how we have approached this proposed legislation. It is as allies, as partners with indigenous people. While it is my voice being heard in the House today, the voices of indigenous peoples are here too. Their voices are here with us today as our partners, our Dakota.
This proposed legislation is about all indigenous languages in Canada and all indigenous people. It is meant to benefit all indigenous people, regardless of their age, gender, linguistic or distinction grouping or where they live.
Five generations of harm inflicted upon indigenous peoples have brought us where we are today, but today we are making a real difference. The message is clear: It is time to act. Let us do it together.