Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to this legislation. It is probably one of the only opportunities I will ever get to talk about far-reaching legislation, if it moves in the right direction, that will be very historic for a riding like mine.
As members know, I represent 42 first nations in my riding. A majority of those first nations live in isolated communities. There are three distinct cultural groups, but there are also dialects within these communities that are not necessarily reported by all.
I represent a large population of Ojibway, Cree and what we call Oji-Cree. Within these groups, there are subgroups. This is what I found out very early on in my political career, in the late 1980s, early 1990s, when I travelled up north to visit the communities. I used to bring an interpreter with me when I was talking to the elders. They would speak in their own language because they felt more comfortable. Sometimes I brought an interpreter who would tell me that the community we were going to was hard to understand, even though it was 100 miles away from the previous community I was at, because of its unique isolation and the fact that its language had evolved over hundreds if not thousands of years.
Therefore, Bill C-91 is absolutely critical for a riding and a region like mine if we are to build the kind of society, a diverse and culturally-appropriate world, for indigenous children and their parents.
If we go to northern Ontario, we will find that in a lot of the communities the older people and the elders still speak their language. However, there is a struggle in the communities for the children to continue to learn their language. As I said in one of the questions I asked, modern technology, like TV and satellite, has brought the English language into their home and more young people are speaking that language versus their own.
I would like to also acknowledge the efforts of members who brought forward changes to have indigenous languages translated in the House. That is absolutely important to all of us.
I will spend my time today talking about the role of the commissioner, which is extremely important. That person will have the obligation under the act to ensure that as we move forward, the preservation and promotion of indigenous languages is one of the paths going forward.
Language falls under the branch of education. We know that a high quality, culturally-appropriate education is one of the elements in further developing a modern relationship with indigenous peoples across Canada. Yes, to foster a learning environment, children must have access to clean water, safe and affordable housing, social infrastructure and health services. Creating and maintaining this type of environment is key to providing a supportive space for children and youth. I think we are all committed in this place to ensuring that happens.
Within the Kenora riding, which I have represented since 1988, then took a break and came back, we have many examples of language revitalization efforts. The Kwayaciiwin Education Resource Centre in Sioux Lookout is an example of that. I would ask my colleagues who will be looking at the bill in committee to think about the role of this resource centre and others across the country in bringing these languages back into existence and full use. Therefore, I want to speak directly about what the resource centre does.
Not only does the resource centre provide educational opportunities and services for indigenous children and youth for 21 first nations communities, but it also publishes educational materials, children's books and instructional resources in a variety of indigenous languages, including titles such as “Ariel's Moccasins”, published in Oji-Cree and “Signs of Spring”, published in Ojibway.
We cannot bring a bill like this into the House of Commons without understanding the process of how we teach young people. Just like we teach English, French or any other language across the country, we need resources, like books that cannot be bought anywhere else in the world but have to be built one book at a time in Canada. This resource centre has been delivering that job and the opportunity to bring books to young people all across those 21 first nations. It gets many calls from across the country to look at how to translate into the individual languages of the communities across the nation and put them into books, so we can start at kindergarten age, at grade one, and on it goes. Therefore, the resources are available in their language in order to be successful.
I have visited the resource centre many times and can attest to the true passion it has for working with indigenous languages.
The other example I want to bring to the attention of the House is Kiizhik School. It is located in the city of Kenora. It opened its doors in 2015, with 15 students. It has continued to grow exponentially ever since. As the first school of its kind in Ontario, it works to close the educational gap for indigenous students in the area by implementing curriculums that include indigenous heritage as a subject of study, rather than a framework for education.
I have had the opportunity to visit the school. This is the example I was referring my colleague from Edmonton to, about a school in an urban centre that has the opportunity to have young people, whether they live on reserve nearby in first nations communities or in the city of Kenora, to learn and be educated in their own language. That is unique and is obviously another form of education. Like French immersion, this is an Ojibway immersion school. The kids are starting off in kindergarten, and the school is getting bigger every year.
The school provides access to traditional languages and elements of indigenous culture that public schools are currently unable to provide. By teaching Ojibway, using an Anishinaabe sound chart, holding vibrant powwows, interacting with the Anishinaabe community and integrating the Ontario mainstream curriculum, students are going past surface learning and truly learning about the culture of who the Anishinaabe people are.
Education is crucial to the revitalization of indigenous languages, and the work being done by organizations like Kwayaciiwin Education Resource Centre and the Kiizhik Education Corporation are leading the way.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report in 2015, the government committed to implementing all 94 calls to action. Through Bill C-91, the government is pleased to be delivering on a number of the calls to action related to indigenous languages.
Call to action 15 calls upon the federal government to appoint, in consultation with aboriginal groups, an aboriginal languages commissioner. It goes on to specify that the commissioner should help promote aboriginal languages and report on the adequacy of federal funding of aboriginal languages initiatives.
I have been to every school in every first nation in my riding, and this is one of the main topics of discussion with all the teachers and school boards in those communities. They would like more resources, more language teachers, more opportunity to teach in their language. This gives us the opportunity to go down that path to see this can happen for our young people, now and in the future.
Canada has never before had a national indigenous language commissioner. The indigenous language act, and all that it would establish, including a commissioner of indigenous languages, is a significant step forward in Canada's efforts toward reconciliation with indigenous peoples. The importance of this undertaking cannot be overstated.
I have talked about the new commissioner today because it represents a path. As we all know, it is going to take a number of years, not just weeks or days, to put forward the kind of process that will make a difference. This is true even with respect to languages like Ojibway or Cree, which are not disappearing anytime soon. They are very vibrant, strong languages with a lot of speakers. Nevertheless, a lot of young children are not speaking these languages because of where they happen to live.
The government spent the summer engaging with indigenous peoples at the community level through direct workout-type sessions with first nation, Inuit and Métis peoples across Canada. I am very interested in the way the commissioner will work with the Métis people, as there is large group of Métis in my region. I am looking forward to seeing how that process will work. Generally speaking, in my area, and I think in yours as well, Madam Speaker, Métis people go to public school and separate school and they do not necessarily live in first nation communities. We must have an understanding about how the education process will work for them.
Many indigenous peoples who were engaged by Canadian Heritage felt that the role of an indigenous languages commissioner should be to support local and regional indigenous institutions and not duplicate existing resources. I look to my colleagues who will be working on this legislation to remind themselves that not one size fits all. What we do in northern Ontario and how our education system functions is not the same as for the Cree in northern Quebec, a place in which I have travelled extensively. I understand that its system is set up in a particular way. I like the idea that we are here to support local initiatives. We will find ways to make things happen.
That is why the commissioner and his or her work is absolutely critical to the success of this legislation, as well as to the success of building up indigenous languages, which we all think are important to our culture and our Canadian society. Going forward, it will make a difference in our relationship with indigenous people. They will feel very much at home in their own land when they are able to take courses and speak their own language in school. The first time they take science in Oji-Cree, I would like to be in the room, That will be an interesting story to tell, of a book about science that is written in an indigenous language.
The commissioner will acknowledge that indigenous languages are best reclaimed, revitalized, maintained and strengthened by indigenous people, and will create a framework for a flexible, sustainable approach to funding Indigenous languages.
I wanted to ensure that I had the chance to speak to this, as this is the most important legislation we in the House will pass this term. This will have far-reaching implications for society long after we are gone, and young people are given the opportunity to speak their language.
I suggest very strongly for the House and its members that we move the legislation very quickly and that we find ways to work together. I think we all agree, in principle, that this is important legislation. Some say it is historic. For me, as a member of Parliament who represents a riding in which 40% of constituents are indigenous, the bill is one of the main reasons I came here.
I look forward to working with all colleagues. I am not on the aboriginal affairs committee, but I know it will do a very good job of reviewing this to ensure we get it right, so young people can learn in their own language and so we can provide the kinds of materials and resources, like books, that reflect their own culture. That is a very important part.
That is what I wanted to say. I am thankful for the opportunity to say a few words today.