With so many of us working remotely, the June issue of BarTalk is a digital-only issue. Watch for our next print issue in October. 

Indigenous Language Rights

The right to speak an Indigenous language is associated with the revitalization and sustenance of Indigenous languages. According to the First Peoples Cultural Council the number of language learners is increasing.

Indigenous Language Rights

Awx peǹ tl’u7 Snu Snukwa
Greetings my friends.

Chasneya n skwast
My name is Chasneya.

nłeʔkepmxkn
I am nłeʔkepmx.

Tská7a ha nlha7kapmxtsín?
Do you understand the Nlha7kápmx language?

The right to speak an Indigenous language is associated with the revitalization and sustenance of Indigenous languages. According to the First Peoples Cultural Council the number of language learners is increasing. This is a positive development as many Indigenous languages in BC have been labelled as “critically endangered.” To support the revitalization of Indigenous languages there must be a legal framework, similar to French language rights protected under the Charter, that recognizes the right to speak an Indigenous language when receiving government services and programs, including education and the administration of justice. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides the following language rights under Article 13:

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their ... languages, oral traditions, ... writing systems ... and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.
  2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected and also to ensure that Indigenous peoples can be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings ... through the provision of interpretation.

Based upon Calls to Action number 14 of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the federal government has undertaken a consultation process in respect to the proposed Aboriginal Languages of Canada Act (Bill S-212) “… for the advancement of the Aboriginal languages of Canada and to recognize and respect Aboriginal language rights.” Section 7 of the Act would require the responsible Minister to implement commitments to

(a) recognize and support the right of Aboriginal governments to take action on using and giving official status to Aboriginal languages for the purposes of conducting local governance activities;

(b) recognize and support the right of Aboriginal governments to use Aboriginal languages as the language of instruction ....

Ostensibly, the reference to “local governance activities” is to programs and services delivered by the Indigenous governments, e.g. Band office, Tribal Council, Métis Council. At issue for Indigenous governments is having the capacity to offer Indigenous language services to their members, including at meetings, e.g. council, membership. Indigenous language rights will re-quire Indigenous governments to provide interpreters for the benefit of members and to have written materials in their language. As well, Indigenous language instruction should be properly funded with government support.

In the Northwest Territories, the Official Languages Act (R.S.N.W.T. 1988, c.O-1) provides an example of the official designation of Indigenous languages:

4. Chipewyan, Cree, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey and Tåîchô are the Official Languages of the Northwest Territories.

Section 11(2) of the Official Languages Act provides that a person has the “Right to Communicate and Receive Services” in their Indigenous language “where ... there is a significant demand for communications ... or it is reasonable that communications ... be available in that language.” This Act may serve as an example for BC.

Legal recognition of Indigenous language rights will be a major step toward reconciliation of past wrongs emanating from the legal prohibition of speaking an Indigenous language during the residential school colonial period. The legal profession needs to support and encourage the use of Indigenous languages. 

                              Húṁalh