Mr. Speaker, I was saying that people looked at my name badge, saw my name, and assumed I could speak French. I could not. I could not even string five sentences together.
I was so struck that it sent me on a journey of identity and a lifelong journey of acknowledging and shaping that identity. I resolved that summer to double down on learning French. I chose later to study at Campus Saint-Jean at the University of Alberta to learn, and as I said earlier, love the language. That decision changed my life.
I think of the young indigenous people in my riding, our province and across the country, who are Cree, Dene, Blackfoot or Mohawk and who do not have access to language learning opportunities like I did. They often face the same struggle of identity and the same need to connect to the traditions, teaching and spirituality that the plunge into one's language affords.
The connection to history and the ability to share and pass on teachings in one's ancestral tongue are fundamentally important. In fact, they are a basic human right, yet indigenous languages in Canada are disappearing. Elders are dying, and with them the knowledge of their mother tongue. Our future depends on the survival of our language; so it is for indigenous peoples.
According to UNESCO, at least three-quarters of the 90 indigenous languages spoken in Canada are at risk of disappearing or are vulnerable. While we cannot change the past, we can and must work together for a better future. The time to act is now, and we will do so with the indigenous languages act.
Our government fulfilled the promise that the Prime Minister made to indigenous peoples to introduce a bill that would help them reclaim, revitalize, maintain and strengthen their languages.
This legislation would provide the mechanisms to recognize indigenous language-related rights; support the reclamation, revitalization, strengthening and maintenance of indigenous languages in Canada; support and promote indigenous languages; provide long-term, sustainable funding to reach these goals, and establish an office of commissioner of indigenous languages. It is why, as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage earlier in my time here on Parliament Hill, I was so taken by this work and collaborated with colleagues so that we could see this day arrive.
The legislation before us was co-developed between Canada and national indigenous organizations, and through intensive engagements with indigenous specialists, knowledge keepers and experts. I would like to thank and recognize the extraordinary work done by the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis National Council. Their insights into the invaluable role that elders play in language acquisition and preservation is critical. We heard clearly, and agree, with the deep sense of urgency to act, particularly with respect to elders and their role in revitalizing indigenous languages.
The 2005 Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures noted an urgent need for immediate action to stem the loss of languages. It goes without saying that there is a need to provide support to indigenous communities and governments to help them act immediately.
To put this in perspective, in the first nations context, for example, one in three seniors reported having an indigenous mother tongue in 2016. By comparison, about one in 10 first nations children aged 10 to 14 had an indigenous mother tongue. Some languages have few remaining speakers of the grandparents' and great-grandparents' generation.
While no indigenous languages in Canada are considered safe, it is important to state that language vitality across first nations, Inuit and Métis varies broadly. For example, among the Inuit, a higher percentage of seniors also reported having lnuktitut as their mother tongue, compared to younger generations. However, Inuit have the highest percentage of mother tongue speakers across all age groups, compared to first nations and Métis.
Less than 2% of the Métis population reported the ability to speak an indigenous language. A higher percentage of Métis seniors reported an aboriginal mother tongue and the ability to speak an aboriginal language, compared with their younger counterparts.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report stated that communities and educational institutions should be prepared to draw on valuable resources from indigenous communities to facilitate the teaching and transmission of indigenous languages.
This is not to say that indigenous languages are completely gone when there are no speakers left. Languages can be revived through the efforts of documentation and archiving. Even in this case, elders will be the most valuable asset to help build resources for their languages for generations to come.
There is also Bert Crowfoot of the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society, who saw the importance of preserving language 36 years ago when he made the decision to safeguard audio and film content on old reel-to-reel tapes, VCR cassettes and old 16-millimetre film and floppy discs that contain storytelling, interviews and music in the Cree language. Today he is helping to direct a project called Digitizing the Ancestors to create a searchable digitized archive. It will be a resource to help future generations to learn Cree by hearing voices from the past.
Young people, too, are working hard to reclaim and revitalize language and culture. Jeremy Dutcher, a classically trained artist from the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, recently won the 2008 Polaris Music Prize and the 2019 Juno Award for indigenous music album of the year. Jeremy's album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, features traditional Maliseet songs, recorded a century ago, obtained from the Canadian Museum of History.
The First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres reiterated the importance of elders in their indigenous languages legislation engagement report, stating that elders guide their work and support their community base and national role as language advocates and language experts.
I am proud to share two examples of reclamation action that are close to my heart.
The Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute at the University of Alberta aims to stop language extinction through cultural education and expression. This exchange, in turn, often addresses historical traumas, mental and physical health, and both social and academic struggles for indigenous youth as they learn intimately about their history and traditional culture, sometimes for the first time.
In addition, the Royal Alberta Museum in downtown Edmonton, which is dedicated to preserving Alberta's rich history, proudly displays many of its exhibits in several indigenous languages, including Cree, Dene, Blackfoot, Nakota and Michif. Further indigenous stories are interwoven throughout all six human history galleries, and this lets all Canadians learn about deep-rooted history and tradition from Alberta and across Canada.
Today on CBC, I learned that an enterprising music group from Cape Breton took Paul McCartney's song, Blackbird, and is now able to sing it in Mi'kmaq.
This bill would allow for the flexibility required to support the various states of language vitality. In some situations, that may mean supporting elders' participation in language planning, activities and programming. In other situations, enhancing access and an opportunity for elders to learn their language from their cohorts is equally important. This is based on the concept that language revitalization should be multi-faceted, meaning that it may involve more than one approach to address various segments of the community, ranging from early learning to adult immersion.
In closing, I will state that every year, sadly, indigenous communities lose more elders. It is time to act. I envision a near future in which indigenous and non-indigenous people, young and less young, can have the opportunity to learn, explore, promote and protect the languages of the ancestral peoples of this land. Our commitment to reconciliation and our fundamental values of fairness and inclusion demand nothing less of us than to pass and implement the indigenous languages act.
I remember chatting with my great-grandmother, Lucy Brown Eyes, when I was about five. She would have been about 88. She said, “These hands used to skin hides. Now they make apple pies. Some day the land will return to us, and with it, all of our languages.”
We owe it to indigenous peoples and all Canadians to get this right.