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Concerns from Inuit populations dampen “landmark” legislation

The Trudeau government’s Bill C-91: An Act Respecting Indigenous Languages has had its first reading in the House of Commons. The bill aims to expand official recognition of Canada’s Indigenous languages and supports services and education in those languages.  

Trudeau’s administration claims to have made reconciliation and compensation efforts with Canada’s First Nations peoples a key part of their platform, and last week’s announcement of Bill C-91 is the latest in a string of legislation aimed at bolstering Indigenous communities.   

The federal government claims that C-91 will help reverse the decline of Indigenous languages—a trend encouraged and accelerated by Canada’s residential school system. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the restoration of Indigenous language education as a key recommendation in their 2008 report.

Heritage and Multiculturalism Minister Pablo Rodriguez called Bill C-91 “a major milestone,” but admits that the government still has a long way to go to fulfil their commitment to reconciliation.

Reactions to the proposal have been mixed across Canada, but many hope that it is a step in the right direction.

“I’m hopeful that this becomes something productive and helpful, but I think a lot of people were expecting a little bit more,” said Darren Sutherland, Indigenous Community Engagement Officer with the University of Ottawa Indigenous Resource Centre.“There wasn’t a lot of community consultation. I think a lot of people were hoping that it would’ve been a more transparent process.”

There are a number of criticisms regarding the bill, particularly from the Inuit community and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a not-for-profit Inuit advocacy group. According to a statement by president Natan Obed, “The absence of any Inuit-specific content suggests this bill is yet another legislative initiative developed behind closed doors by a colonial system and then imposed on Inuit.”

In a document sent to the Fulcrum by ITK, the organization’s stances are outlined in a series of guidelines for any potential legislation addressing Indigenous language. One such request is a “distinctions-based approach,” which would recognize the necessary specificity regarding the needs of Inuktitut. No such provisions exist in Bill C-91.

Sutherland adds “No one is talking dollar amounts. People want to know how much money is going to be committed to this. I would like to see some representative of government step up and say ‘we’re going to at least match the current investment to Indigenous language initiatives, or increase it.’”

Bill C-91 has been in the works for several years and will have to go through the House and Senate before being enacted into law. The process is expected to be complete before the federal election this fall, but before it is, many would like to see amendments made.

For example, ITK and other Inuit organizations hope to see Inuktitut—which is reportedly spoken by 84 per cent of Nunavut’s 51 Inuit Nunangat communities—become a working language of territorial governance.

Sutherland hopes to see the increase of access to and promotion of indigenous language programming in urban communities. He pointed out that Indigenous peoples who move to urban centres are less likely than their friends and family on reserves to learn their native language. He also has suggestions on how research and implementation of programming should be conducted going forward.

“This isn’t like regions like New Zealand, or Ireland, places with less language diversity. There isn’t one solution, the region to region approach is probably the best thing to do,” he said.

“However research would take a lot of time, and most fluent speakers are aging. The communities know what they need, so if they’re willing to listen to what communities already know, and provide some funding to support their efforts, then I think that’s great.”

If you’re interested in Indigenous languages, University of Ottawa offers courses in the Institute of Canadian and Aboriginal Studies.