Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Winnipeg North.
Chi-meegwetch, which means “thank you very much”. I start my remarks in Algonquin, cognizant that I speak today in the House of Commons, which is located on unceded Algonquin territory and also cognizant of this occasion.
Today, I rise to speak in support of Bill C-91, the indigenous languages act. This legislation is the first of its kind in Canadian history. It begins to turn the page on 400 years of colonialism in this country and systematic efforts by successive governments to sever the ties of indigenous people to their mother tongues.
I will start with a preliminary comment, which is that all of us fortunate enough to be elected into this place come here with a sense of purpose or an objective in mind. For me, given my background in human rights and constitutional law, I came here wanting to work on issues that relate to fighting for and promoting equality and inclusion. I had in mind certain policy goals that I wanted to pursue. However, I quickly realized that sometimes in this place, we seek out an issue and sometimes an issue seeks us out. I will explain.
In January, 2017, I was asked by the Prime Minister to serve as the parliamentary secretary to the then minister of heritage. I was then asked by the minister to assist her in the co-development of Canada's first-ever indigenous languages act. I will admit to everyone in this chamber that at first I was very puzzled by this request. I am not a linguist nor am I an expert in anything related to indigenous persons. However, in retrospect, that one request actually changed the direction of my parliamentary career. Why? It is because it simply opened my eyes.
On arrival here, because of my legal background, I fancied myself a pretty knowledgeable fellow about most human rights issues. However, the reality was that I actually knew very little about the plight of indigenous persons on this land. Tasked by the minister to engage with indigenous leaders, elders, teachers and experts right across the country about what they would like to see in the new legislation, I actually learned a great deal. Most of all, I learned about how little I actually knew and had been taught about indigenous persons, their histories, traditions, languages, and most importantly, their trauma. I learned about the size, scope and extent of the residential school system, its pernicious impact on indigenous people in Canada and the lasting trauma it created.
Like many in this chamber, I am a parent. Together with my wife, and like many parents in this diverse country, I try to inculcate a sense of culture and tradition in our own little kids, Zakir and Nitin. As a south Asian household, we made efforts to connect our two little boys to the Indian subcontinent by teaching them some language skills, which in our case is Hindi. While the results have not always been perfect, and I will readily admit that the kids still prefer subtitles when they watch Bollywood films, it has not been for a lack of effort on our part.
Our experience is not any different from countless parents of all different backgrounds around this country, such as Greek, Italian, Arab, Somali, Tibetan, Ukrainian and Polish parents. All parents in this country strive to do much the same in this multicultural nation. However, there is one glaring exception to that list, and that is the experience of indigenous parents and their children in this country, because for indigenous people on this land, their efforts for 150 years to impart their language, and through it their culture, to their children were actively obstructed by the federal state.
The Government of Canada made it a policy to remove their children from their homes and put them in schools, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, where those kids were forced to assimilate. If they dared speak Algonquin, Cree, Ojibwa, Dene or Inuktitut, they were beaten. That is the horrible legacy of the residential school system in this country. It is a system that was constructed to literally “take the Indian out of the child”.
That is where this legislation comes in. The proposed indigenous languages act has, as its express goal, the objective of supporting, promoting and revitalizing indigenous languages in this country. It is an effort to start the long journey toward restoring the vitality of indigenous languages on this land and reversing the ugly legacy of colonialism.
The teaching of language by any parent in this chamber, by settlers or indigenous persons, is always motivated by the same rationale, that in providing children with language, we connect them to who they are, to their culture. We make them knowledgeable of who they are and where they come from, knowing that in doing so we build up their self-esteem and confidence, and empower them for success. It is so intuitive that we take it for granted that by teaching a child about their culture, they will inevitably do better in terms of their education, economically, and even their health.
However, in my time spent working as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of heritage on the development of this very bill, I also came across empirical evidence. It was so startling that it has stayed with me for well over two years.
We have heard many times in the House about the crisis of mental health and in particular the grave concerns about youth suicide in Canada, particularly indigenous youth suicide.
One study put all of this into very sharp focus. Conducted in British Columbia, the analysts determined that indigenous youth in that province with a conversational knowledge of their indigenous language had a suicide rate of 13 per 100,000, a number well below the provincial average, which includes non-indigenous youth.
However, when the researchers removed indigenous language knowledge from the analysis, the youth suicide rate jumped sixfold, to 96 per 100,000, a number exponentially higher than the provincial average. This amply demonstrates that language knowledge not only connects indigenous youth to their culture but can actually help save lives.
For parliamentarians, there can be no stronger impetus than this for getting on with the critical work of passing this bill into law, yet there are other imperatives that inform this proposed legislation.
For one thing, there are the sentiments expressed to me by my constituents and by people I heard from right across the country. People in Parkdale—High Park told me they want reconciliation not to be simply a symbolic term, but rather one that materializes in concrete legislative action.
As well, there is the sheer weight of the statistics. Some 90 different indigenous languages are spoken in this country, and shockingly, not a single one of them is considered safe by UNESCO. Fully three-quarters of them are critically endangered. In addition, there was a near 50% drop between 1996 and 2011 in the number of indigenous persons in this country who reported knowledge of an indigenous mother tongue. This clearly illustrates the threat to the survival of many languages posed by an aging population of fluent elders.
I can also speak directly to what I heard when I was given the opportunity as parliamentary secretary to engage with indigenous communities across the country. From Halifax to Victoria to the Northwest Territories, what I heard was very similar. It was the sense of rupture, the sense of disconnection from one's culture experienced by so many indigenous persons victimized by the residential school system.
I recall very vividly a meeting in Saskatchewan during which an indigenous man, who may have been about 50 years old, told the group about being forcibly taken from his family and his community at the age of five, and how he was prohibited from speaking his mother tongue. When I asked him what success would look like a few years after legislation came into force, he said to me simply, “Success would be being able to enter the sweat lodge and actually understand the words being spoken by the elders.”
Make no mistake, it is indigenous persons that are the focus of this law. Much discussion has taken place in Canada and in this chamber about raising the awareness of indigenous languages among settler populations in this country through the passage of this bill. While that would be commendable, it remains a secondary, corollary aspect of this proposed legislation. The goal of this bill is not, for example, the promotion of Ojibwa fluency among non-indigenous folks in my riding or in any other riding in this country; the goal of this legislation is and has to be restoring language fluency and capacity among indigenous people in Canada so that indigenous people, by reclaiming their language, can reclaim their culture and overcome that sense of rupture I spoke about, the rupture caused by the official policy of assimilation that characterized the residential school system for 150 years.
This bill also relates to the TRC's calls to action, in particular calls 13, 14 and 15, which call for, among other things, an acknowledgement “that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights.” That is precisely what proposed section 6 of this bill does.
The focus of this bill is also on fulfilling the promise of UNDRIP, a document we as a government have committed to implementing. The UN declaration speaks to the right of self-determination of indigenous peoples, which includes “the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages [and] oral traditions”. That statement is entrenched in the preamble to this proposed legislation.
This is precisely why we took the step of co-developing this proposed legislation with indigenous leaders and national indigenous organizations. The patriarchal days of the federal government telling indigenous people what is best for them are thankfully gone. It is indigenous people who know what is best for indigenous communities, and in this International Year of Indigenous Languages, it is high time we as parliamentarians all started listening to them.
I will conclude where I began. The protection and promotion of indigenous languages is not something that I ever contemplated working on, but it is an issue that found me. I am tremendously grateful for that, because on this journey I have learned that while there are many social justice causes worthy of pursuit in this country, all of them pale in comparison to the obligation we have as parliamentarians to redress the historical injustices perpetuated against indigenous persons on this land over the last 400 years of colonialism. The indigenous languages act is one small but very significant step on the path to reconciliation, and it deserves all of our support.