Je Speak Inuktitut

While the United States and the social democracies of Europe tend to simplify matters by encouraging assimilation of new immigrants, Canada likes to complicate things. We offer plurality and multiculturalism – or, perhaps more accurately, interculturalism. Like an ever-expanding circle, we accommodate, incorporate, and amalgamate other cultures. But what we are less good at is accommodating – and, indeed, understanding – the foundational diversity that makes us unique.

Former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau understood that French and English were more than just two languages spoken in a country – that they were two fundamental elements of a nation. His government’s Official Languages Act of 1969 – which officially made Canada a bilingual country – cemented a cultural reality that had been there all along.

In Ontario, we attempt to honour this reality by mandating French as a Second Language (FSL) in public education (until Grade 9) and offering French Immersion (FI) programs of varying intensity. Language, more than anything, provides access to, and appreciation for, a culture. For Canadians, learning French reinforces a sense that the French culture is part of who we are. It is thus sad when, as a country, Canada downplays the importance of the other non-Anglo foundation of our prosperous nation – Aboriginal Peoples and their cultures.

Related: A Healthy Distrust at First Nations-Crown Summit

In his 2008 book A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul wrote: “If we misrepresent what we are, we cannot think about ourselves in a useful way.” Saul was attempting to convince his fellow Canucks that our current idea of ourselves – which, in his mind, approximates a warped, post-Enlightenment, “northern” version of the U.S. – obfuscates our true Métis origins and renders us incapable of understanding ourselves and realizing our potential as an example for the world. Saul contends that, in addition to the English and the French, the array of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit that make up the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada are the third, and perhaps most important, foundational “pillar” of our country.

In terms of language, aboriginal tongues are an endangered species. The impact of the residential school system, forced assimilation, and hundreds of years of stigmatization have pushed even the most dominant aboriginal languages to the margins: Less than 100,000 people now claim to speak Cree, less than 40,000 claim to speak Ojibwe, and only six per cent of off-reserve First Nations youth (aged 14 and under) speak any aboriginal language. And while there has been a concerted effort to reinvigorate some of those languages (consider, for instance, the Official Languages Act that makes Nunavut a trilingual territory), aboriginal languages remain on the fringes of public education, and thus society.

Related: Is Nunavut Really a Failing State?

Cree educator Dr. Emily Faries writes:

A limited and misguided understanding of First Nations issues has prevented the achievement of reconciliation and a renewed relationship between non-Native and First Nations peoples in Canada. It has been expressed in government and First Nations reports that schools have a vital role in making monumental changes in these relationships. Through schools, society can become better informed about the richness and diversity of First Nations peoples. It is through school systems that the relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies can be fostered.

Provincial curricula typically opt for a safe, de-colonial approach to aboriginal languages. The Ontario Ministry of Education, for instance, holds that “the ultimate goal of [its] Native language program is to inspire Native students with pride in their ancestral language and to motivate them to use it to communicate in their daily lives – to use it, in other words, as a living language that is part of a living culture.”

Promoting aboriginal languages among aboriginal youth is extremely important, but in addressing just one side of the aboriginal/non-aboriginal equation, it will inevitably fall short of the kind of reconciliation that Dr. Faries calls for. A resurgence of aboriginal languages should certainly begin with Aboriginal Peoples and aboriginal communities, but if instruction is only available in certain communities, or is promoted exclusively for aboriginal students, then we will continue to obscure what those languages mean for Canada as a whole.

Related: Setting National Goals for First Nations

Aboriginal languages should be integrated into all public-school curricula so they are made available to all young Canadians, regardless of background. This may sound naïve (some may even think it misguided), but the groundwork is already being laid. Nunavut has created a bilingual education system – English and Inuktitut – and many communities have fully developed aboriginal-language curricula (although predominately on-reserve) and recruited teachers and support staff to implement them.

Given the variety of languages and regional dialects spoken by Aboriginal Peoples, the question will inevitably arise as to which one, or ones, deserve to be promoted. It is a fair question. But if the goal is to foster an understanding of the sociocultural foundations of our country and help Canadian children understand who they are and what is unique about this country, then the larger argument is that they ought to be exposed to an aboriginal language – the particular language of instruction matters less.

The purpose of teaching French in Canada has never been the same as the purpose of teaching Spanish in schools in the United States. We do not promote the French language to make a minority group feel more at home, or to woo the “Quebecois vote.” We teach French because it is an inexorable (and indispensable) part of being Canadian. Aboriginal languages are an equally important part of who we are, and, as such, deserve the same regard.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.