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Op-ed: Dr. Carrie Dyck and Amos Key

Canadians have obligation to support Indigenous languages

Part of a special feature focused on celebrating and recognizing the contribution and impact of Aboriginal Peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador and highlighting contemporary topics and opportunities related to Aboriginal Peoples worldwide. This feature coincides with Aboriginal Peoples Week running March 21-24.


In Canada’s Indian Residential School system, the 53 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada were suppressed—even demonized—silencing the voices of well over seven generations of Indigenous humanity.

In the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “The intent … was to “kill the Indian in the child.” … those in charge of the schools repeatedly told the children that their language and their culture was worthless and evil…”

What is wrong with this picture?

Adequate language funding

Changing its policy from active suppression to lukewarm support of Indigenous languages, Canada began to distribute $5 million per year to its 644 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. To put this in context, “[t]he total [provincial] funding for [Ontario] French-language boards for the 2010-11 school year was $1.24 billion…” This is a wonderful example of what adequate language funding could and should be. Can you imagine?

In 2006, the Liberal government decided to increase the $5 million budget to $172.5 million over 10 years; the Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures was established to recommend how the funding should be spent. In 2005 (and $12.5 million later), the recommendations in Towards a New Beginning were released. In response, the then-new Conservative government permanently committed…wait for it…$5 million annually as of 2006.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Intellectual heritage

Indigenous languages encode the distilled wisdom of peoples who have lived here for millennia; they provide wonderfully varied perspectives on how to get along, how to live healthily and how to develop emotional and spiritual intelligence. The following facts about Ongwehón:weh (Iroquoian) languages provides some inkling of the intellectual heritage of Canada’s Indigenous civilizations:

  • The word ‘Canada’ derives from the Laurentian word, Kaná:ta’, meaning ‘settlement or town’.
  • The Moral Code of Handsome Lake (in the Cayuga language, “Gaihwí:yo:) is a blueprint for cultivating, nurturing and maintaining a good mind, living well with others, and cultivating virtues valued within the Ongwehón:weh The code is steeped in emotional, social, and spiritual intelligence. Each year, the great orators go on the “Gaihwi:yo: Trail” and eloquently recite the code in the participating Longhouse communities in New York State and Eastern Canada. It takes a full four days to recite and interpret the code each time.
  • With about 6,000 words and word-parts, Ongwehón:weh languages have elegant expressive powers: for example, the Cayuga word for the Canadian constitution is Hodiyanehsronni:gó:wah, which means ‘Great Law Created by Men’; and the word for parliament is Ganonhsowanenhgó:wah or ‘Pre-eminent Great House’.

While all of Canada’s Indigenous languages have writing systems, most of the distilled wisdom in these languages is passed on from speaker to speaker, in an oral tradition. Yet, for many Indigenous languages in Canada, the most fluent speakers are more than 60 years of age.

Right to speak

As “Treaty Peoples,” Canadians have an obligation to support Indigenous languages: Section 35 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and subsequent court cases recognize and protect “non-extinguished” Indigenous rights that “were integral to the distinctive culture of the specific Aboriginal group” before European contact. These rights include the right to speak an Indigenous language.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls on Canada’s Treaty Peoples, and post-secondary institutions in particular, “… to create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages.” As called for in the Principles of Truth and Reconciliation, we need to consult with Indigenous scholars, wisdom keepers and elders, so that we can embed new frameworks of Indigenous inclusion and Indigenous knowledge throughout our discourse and in our institutions.

Above all, we must understand the residential school context that created language endangerment. We owe it to the next seven generations to support the Indigenous Peoples of Canada in their efforts to maintain their languages. Only then will we move beyond the current Third World conditions of Indigenous humanity in Canada, and put into action a new epiphany of conscience, so that Canada’s Indigenous voices will be heard again.

Da:netoh! (That’s our final word.)

Dr. Carrie Dyck is associate dean, research and graduate programs, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and associate professor, Department of Linguistics. She can be reached here.

Amos Key, Jr., was born into the Onkwehonweh Civilization of Ontario and hails from the Six Nations of the Grand River community, in Southern Ontario. He is of Mohawk descent born into the Turtle Clan.


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