Mr. Speaker, at the start I would like to acknowledge that this House rests on the ancestral lands of the Algonquin people.
It just occurred to me, in listening to the discussion here, that we do not only have the tragedy of the disappearing of our languages. My ancestors came to Newfoundland around 1610 and had friendly relations with the Beothuk. Not only have we lost the languages of the Beothuk, but the Beothuk are gone.
As a nation, we have to get serious about this and we have to make sure, going forward, in laws that this place is enacting, that we actually deliver on the United Nations declaration and deliver on the calls to action by the TRC. We have to make sure that we are really getting it because we have directly consulted with the indigenous peoples of Canada.
It is a great honour to speak to Bill C-91. Not only is it an act respecting indigenous languages, but it should be more precisely put, the language rights of first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, although the Inuit are expressing concerns that it does not quite get it from their perspective.
As some renowned scholars in indigenous matters have said, we should not even talk about “indigenous languages”; we should be naming all the languages and all the peoples, because they, themselves, are distinct.
The preamble to this bill specifies that “the recognition and implementation of rights related to Indigenous languages are at the core of reconciliation.”
Reference is made to the calls to action by the TRC on language and culture, as well as the adoption and implementation of UNDRIP. If we go to these calls to action, we see that they are actually titled “Language and culture.” It is not “language”; it is “language and culture”.
The TRC calls on the federal government “to acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights”. Then it goes on to say this about the legislation that is to be enacted, this bill we are speaking to right now:
i. Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them.
ii. Aboriginal language rights are reinforced by the Treaties.
iii. The federal government has a responsibility to provide sufficient funds....
iv. The preservation, revitalization, and strengthening of Aboriginal languages and cultures are best managed by Aboriginal people and communities.
v. Funding for Aboriginal language initiatives must reflect the diversity of Aboriginal languages.
It is right there in the calls to action. The TRC then calls upon the federal government to appoint a commissioner of aboriginal languages, which the bill does. It is to be noted that the calls to action also specifically call for the government to fully adopt and implement UNDRIP and to implement “a national action plan, strategies, and other concrete measures”.
In reading the actual call, we have to recognize that it is about language and culture. They are tied together. It is important to recognize that the calls to action on language and culture must be considered in the context of the bundle of rights in the TRC report and in UNDRIP, and there cannot be a handpicking of one or the other.
I would add that I have repeatedly tried to get the government to actually make UNDRIP binding in bills that come forward, in particular in decisions by the government that impact the lands and resources of indigenous peoples. Sadly, that was always rejected.
Why was the call to revitalize aboriginal languages issued? As shared so clearly in the TRC report, the very intent of the residential school program was to “take the Indian out of the Indian”. This was done by wrenching wee children from their families, communities and traditions, and forbidding their languages and cultural practices. As Commissioner Sinclair has said so clearly, it amounted to “cultural genocide”.
Far too many indigenous peoples today have lost not only their language, but the connection to their cultures and their traditional communities.
As my colleague, the member for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, has shared:
The vast majority of indigenous languages in this country are endangered, and there is a critical need to address that challenge. There is an urgent need at this moment, as we speak, to address that challenge. Our languages are important. If the legislation fails to reflect the intent of the bill, we are not doing our indigenous brothers and sisters in this country any favours.
To the credit of indigenous peoples and other supportive groups, great efforts continue to be made to revitalize their languages and cultures. One example of an indigenous community investing in this objective is the Cayuga and Mohawk immersion initiative at Six Nations.
I had the honour a number of years ago to visit that community and to visit that school. It is absolutely inspiring to see what is done there, without government support, even though it is desperately needed.
The sad thing is that this particular school, which is working on teaching people the Gayogoho:no language, has to hold classes above the curling rink. It cannot even get the support of the government to build a proper school so that it can teach the children these languages. As I was leaving that facility, the children came out of the classrooms, and they went into a round house and sang traditional songs. I witnessed first-hand the tears of the elders, that once again their community is learning to speak their language and to understand the culture. It was phenomenal.
There are examples of non-indigenous entities supporting the development, preservation and revitalization of indigenous languages. One such entity is the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute, or CILLDI, at my alma mater, the University of Alberta. The institute brings together indigenous Canadians from across the country to work on learning their languages and how they can promote and revitalize the languages. They get university credit for this. The government actually invests in advanced education. This is an area where we should be providing similar programs right across this country.
Some members have commented on the irony that while this place is debating about indigenous languages, some of the members of this place who are indigenous were not accorded the opportunity to speak in their language. One of my colleagues, the member for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, was not able to speak in Dene because she had to give a 48-hour notice. I am looking forward to the time in this place when we have the interpreters available. As the government moves forward and keeps changing what bills come forward, it is not necessarily possible to give advance notice about speaking in one's language. I have attended Dene gatherings in the Northwest Territories where there were 10 or 12 interpreters available. It is not that we do not have those skills in this country. We have to get serious about providing them in this place at the federal level.
We have witnessed a number of members speaking in this place. The priority has to be to ensure the opportunity for those who are indigenous to speak. Of course, it is great to hear those of us who are non-indigenous trying to speak those languages, and that is admirable.
I want to thank the member for Nunavut for raising the concerns raised by the Inuit at committee. The Inuit are deeply troubled by this bill, and it is very concerning that the government is not considering that and did not properly consult on this.
We called for a number of amendments, which it is my understanding everyone rejected. Those that are critical include the requirement that the indigenous language commissioner be indigenous, which I think is pretty obvious; to enshrine UNDRIP as a legally binding provision of this bill; to add specific reference to the discriminatory policy of the sixties scoop that led to the erosion of indigenous languages; and, finally, to include specific measures to respect the language rights of the Inuit.