Why it’s misleading to label Indigenous languages as lost or dying

A short and not-so-sweet post about the state of Indigenous languages in Canada (which I almost subtitled ‘Trudeau’s next broken promise’).

Linguists may argue over the exact number, but it seems most agree that there are 58 Indigenous languages across what we now call Canada. Some are doing relatively alright, some less so, and not a few languages are thought to be on the brink on extinction.

Yet make no mistake: none of these so-called ‘dying’ languages got where they are today by accident. Far from being ‘lost,’ our mother tongues have been under constant attack—what some call pre-meditated linguicide—by forces hell-bent on their destruction.

Why? In contemplating an answer, I feel my mind drifting back to these lines from the recent film Arrival:

Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.

At the risk of misinterpreting the screenwriter’s original intent, what I heard was an apt reference to why our tongues were targeted as far back as the late 1800s, and why their malign neglect is tolerated today.

Put simply, it’s because our languages literally remind non-Indigenous settlers that we are different, in a way that instantly and unmistakably communicates that we were here first.

And because our languages remind settlers that they were not here first—that they are as strangers to these lands—it thus dislodges any basis of legitimacy for their claims to a superior right to decide what does (and does not) happen on these lands.

Which means, as a settler state, when you hear—literally and figuratively—that these lands are not rightfully yours to control, it is in your interest that all audible traces of that fact are effectively erased. A silencing that obliterates otherwise irrefutable evidence of Indigenous difference and prior occupation.

Language has indeed been weaponized in Canada. One can trace the current slow-motion asphyxiation of our languages to the all-out assault launched over a century ago at residential schools, the institutions where our tongues were first lacerated. I wish this was simply a metaphor.

Now, many decades later, Justin Trudeau claims an Indigenous Languages Act is on its way. If we were to quibble like those aforementioned linguists, we might have expected him to commit to 58 such Acts, but let’s go with what’s supposedly coming to the table for now.

No mention of monies accompanied Trudeau’s promise, so specific critiques will have to wait. That said, what we do have is a comparator: namely, French, Canada’s other official language. Which means we have something of a baseline budget for whatever Trudeau’s people might come up with:

the Government of Canada has committed to investing $265.02 million to support minority-language education and $175.02 million to support second-language instruction. As well, $36.6 million is allocated to summer language bursaries, $18.6 million to the official language monitors program and $11.25 million to the Exchanges Canada program.

Source: The State of French Second-language Education Programs in Canada (Feb. 2014)

By my math, that’s a total of just over $500 million. All Much of it for one language.

[Update: Shortly after pressing the ‘publish’ button, it dawned on me that official language support obviously covers both English and French, which means this figure should not be understood to apply to French only. As to how this affects my math, well, according to this federal report (from which the above numbers are drawn), 1 million Francophones live outside Québec, while 1 million English speakers call that province home. If we divide that $500 million funding proportionately (i.e., 50-50), it amounts to $250 million, a still not-inconsiderable chunk of change. I nonetheless apologize for the oversight. –RH]

Were each Indigenous language to receive a similar level of support, that would total roughly $29 $14.5 billion [taking my revised math into account.]  Hell, if they received even just 1/29th of that total ($1 billion $500 million for all 58 languages), advocates would probably [still] lose their minds (and in a good way).

Will Trudeau walk his talk? Based on his performance to date with other core promises, I’m not holding my breath.

Which is why I’m not holding my tongue, one I speak thanks to centuries of colonialism. Don’t get me wrong: as a tool, English has much to offer. So just imagine a toolbox bursting with 58 other ways to engage, describe and celebrate the world. It could’ve been that way. It still can.

Reconciliation requires more than rhetoric. Words, ironically, are not enough.

Canadians: like it or not, the sorry state of Indigenous languages, like the rest of colonialism, is your inheritance, and, for you, it’s carried both costs and benefits. If you truly believe in reconciliation, then you’ll support the resurgence of these languages, and you’ll do so whatever the cost because, truly, the returns will outstrip the investment 150-fold, if not greater.

5 thoughts on “Why it’s misleading to label Indigenous languages as lost or dying

  1. Well said! Gilakas’la. I totally agree. In addition to this sorry state we also have to compete for the pittance that is allotted to Indigenous Language revitalization. And, in bc it is channeled through a system that also drains the pot instead of direct funding.

  2. I came to Canada when I was 7, so living on this land was not an automatic I was born with. As a grown woman I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to learn Mohawk, and have been molded and shaped by that learning for about a year and a half now. I can bring this perspective to the table – the language I am learning teaches meaning, it doesn’t translate colonial perspectives, and so, I believe you can not learn it and see the world around you in the same way you did before. Language builds relationships, to one another, to your own past, to your identity and strength. I think every school, in every territory should be teaching the language of that territory.

  3. You speak truth and facts that are only heard here from you. This information in its pure unadulterated state is either not available, suppressed or ignored by the mainstream media and therefore not being included in the dialogues of reconciliation, which is undermining the truth and sabotaging the premise, the promise, and the process of truth and reconciliation.

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