Some 93 percent of indigenous languages in Australia have become extinct. This is by far the most serious case of “linguicide” in the world. However, if things continue unchanged, Canada may come to challenge that record. According to UNESCO, 88 of Canada’s 90 Indigenous languages are now on the verge of extinction. Unless indigenous language holders, communities and their allies develop appropriate strategies that focus more on revitalizing rather than merely preserving these endangered languages, it’s only a matter of time before we lose them just as we have lost so many others.
Media has a distinct role to play in these language revitalization strategies. However, there are several social, political, economic and cultural obstacles that prevent Indigenous Peoples from using media to effectively compliment such efforts. Fortunately, it is possible to navigate around those obstacles.
To understand the role of media in language revitalization let us first come to terms with the number of Indigenous Peoples in the world. According to the United Nations there are approximately 370 million Indigenous Peoples. Very few people ever think to question that number, but question it we must. After all, several UN member states officially deny have any Indigenous Peoples including the Russian Federation, Namibia and People’s Republic of China. If we tally up the populations of these and other indigenous nationalities not included in the UN’s accounting, we end up with a figure that exceeds 1.3 billion people—18 percent of the world’s population. That figure is according to the Center for World Indigenous Studies Fourth World Atlas Project.
The number of endangered Indigenous languages in the world also varies. According to UNESCO there are 6000 languages still spoken in the world, 43 per cent of which are considered endangered. According to the Center for World Indigenous Studies, there are closer to 7100 languages spoken in the world, 36 percent of which are threatened, declining or nearly extinct. Ethnologue, a comprehensive online catalog all of the world’s known living languages, reports similar numbers.
Whatever numbers we’re prepared to accept, there’s no disputing the threats to the security of the world’s indigenous languages. These threats include: non-indigenous migrants and workforces entering into indigenous communities; constant exposure to foreign languages in the home and limited access to indigenous languages in school and in the media. The greatest threat of all, however, is found in the national language policies used by states like Russia, China, the United States of America, Canada and Australia. Two years ago, Ghil’ad Zuckermann, a professor of endangered languages at the University of Adelaide, revealed just how much harm Australia’s one language policy has caused to indigenous languages in the land of fire. Professor Zuckermann says that 93 percent of indigenous languages in Australia are now extinct.
If things continue unchanged, Canada may come to challenge that record. According to UNESCO, 88 of Canada’s 90 Indigenous languages are now on the verge of extinction.
The reason for this ongoing catastrophe is fairly simple: During Canada’s residential school era, which ran from 1831 to 1969, more than 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their homes, brought into military-style camps and indoctrinated to think, dress, behave and speak like ‘Canadians’. In addition to being stripped of both their language and culture, these children were forced to endure regular physical, sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of residential school staff.
This 130-year legacy of assimilation took its toll on every residential school survivor—there are 80,000 former ‘students’ living today—as well as their families, their communities and their nations. That toll continues to be paid, in one form or another, in almost every indigenous household in what is now Canada.
However, Canada’s assimilation agenda did not begin or end with Residential schools. Rather, it was the centerpiece in a much larger assimilation, enfranchisement and civilization strategy. Nor is it a relic of some by-gone era given the fact that Canada is still pursuing the same old policy objective; albeit with a modern twist. For instance, First Nation schools are generally obligated to obey provincial academic standards, which means First Nation students must perform in one of Canada’s two official languages.
Of course, many schools on Reserve now offer their own culturally and linguistically appropriate curricula like the Akwesasne Freedom School which has provided a Kanienkéha (Mohawk) immersion curriculum for over 20 years “without approval or funding from state, federal or provincial governments.” The Lau, Welnew Tribal School on the on Tsartlip Reserve has operated for almost the same amount of time, using a locally developed SENCOTEN language and culture curriculum. Many other First Nations, however, are still stuck in Canada’s bilingual policy trap.
An unacceptable number of indigenous children are also being pulled into the foster care system and sent to non-indigenous Canadian households. Most of these households are completely void of anything even remotely connected to any indigenous culture and language.
Add all this up—along with our collective inability to access language programs and linguistically-relevant media—and we have ourselves a recipe for cultural genocide.
But all is not lost. Canada’s 150-year old assimilation agenda is beginning to unravel—thanks in no small part to the work of Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Idle No More.
Even though the Canadian government worked in tandem with the media and the Assembly of First Nations to prevent Idle No More from reaching critical mass, it is nonetheless aware of the fact that Idle No More was, in many respects, an early morning exercise for those among us who have never been politically active, including many residential school survivors and their children. Idle No More set the stage for Canada’s indigenous movement to mobilize in a manner that would make that movement look like a morning exercise. It’s in Canada’s best interest to avoid that potential.
Enter Prime Minister Trudeau. Ever since his election, Trudeau and his cabinet have been desperately working to build a new image of Canada that is less hostile towards Indigenous Peoples. This effort has included pushing forward with a long-sought national inquiry into Murder and Missing Indigenous Women and promising to offer “unqualified support” for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—a legal instrument that Canada actively worked against before it was officially approved in 2007. Most recently, Trudeau, in response to an article that was published on IC last April, acknowledged in Winnipeg on June 3 that preserving indigenous language is key to preventing youth suicide. While we haven’t seen anything substantial come from these words and deeds (beyond a few stacks of cash), it is nonetheless encouraging to see Canada depart from the malignant standard that so many other administrations relied on with all the Canadian Pride they could muster.