Chief Harvey McLeod admits the federal Indigenous Languages Act may not be everything First Nations want, but he is firm in his belief that it is an important initial step in revitalizing Indigenous languages and culture.
“Right now we’re kind of working on the outside, making sure things are working,” said McLeod, chief of the Upper Nicola First Nation in British Columbia and a director of BC Assembly of First Nations.
“In order for us to have real, sincere, deep dialogue we have to have a framework on how those discussions are going to happen. We need a table on how those discussions are going to happen.”
Canadian Heritage has begun virtual consultations with First Nations, Métis and Inuit on the implementation of Bill 91, the Indigenous Languages Act. The federal government has set narrow parameters on those discussions, limiting it to how the commissioner of Indigenous Languages will be selected and on a funding model for the reclamation, revitalization, maintenance and strengthening of Indigenous languages.
The selection of a commissioner – along with three directors, one for each Indigenous group – needs to be done right away, said McLeod.
“Right now we’re looking at the commissioner as a priority, but the director to support the work of the commissioner is also very important.
“To see them working simultaneously, working together, it is anticipated, it is hoped from a leader like myself, that we can get all four positions filled ASAP, because of the work and dialogue and relationship we are developing with both the federal government and with our provincial governments… We’re going to be relying on these individuals to be the footprint between ourselves and the governments,” he said.
McLeod says they are inviting leaders and knowledge keepers to put their names forward to serve as either commissioner or director. The joint commission, which is comprised of federal government officials and First Nations, Métis and Inuit representatives, will make the selections.
McLeod is confident that the positions can be filled by the end of the year, the tight timeframe set by the federal government to implement the Act. In-person and on-line consultations by Canadian Heritage were to begin in March and wrap up in June, but were delayed and then went virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.
McLeod anticipates developing a realistic funding formula will be “ongoing dialogue” that will last beyond 2020, but he doesn’t want to see the discussion lingering for years.
The federal government has committed $334 million over five years with $116 million to follow annually. McLeod considers that money “a start”, saying it is insufficient, especially considering there are approximately 65 to 70 Indigenous languages Canada-wide. He wants funding to be long-term, guaranteed and not project-based.
“To be reacquainted and understand the language is so important and this here is multigenerational. It’s not one-year or two-year or five-year or 10-year. It’s multigenerational. It’s a new way of introducing ourselves and standing up for ourselves and understanding who we are. Everything goes back to the language. Everything,” he said.
McLeod is adamant that language funding must be a coordinated effort between the federal and provincial governments as both levels implemented policies that tried “to silence” Indigenous languages.
He points to the initial investment of $50 million committed by the BC government for language revitalization.
“That’s huge. It shows that there’s a commitment to work with us. We see it as an opportunity to really solidify reconciliation with the peoples of this country, with the peoples of this province,” he said.
“Right now we know the (funding) model is important and how we fill the boxes in that model needs to be really thoroughly discussed and understood by both levels of government. (They) have a responsibility in this whole reconciliation process.”
McLeod is “really encouraged” about the future of Indigenous languages and culture.
“The whole process on the language legislation was a difficult one. It was a long one. We have leaders who have worked on this legislation for a long, long time. And for us to come to a point where it is now being acknowledged that (the federal government is saying), ‘Yes, languages are important. Let’s make a commitment to work together, to revitalize your language.’ And for us that was a victory. We have now just started the process,” he said.
The Indigenous Languages Act, along with the federal government’s push to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by year’s end, and the BC government’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act passed earlier this year all sit right with McLeod.
“(They are saying), ‘We will support you in regaining, relearning, understanding, bringing your language back into your life.’ That took a long time. And that, in my mind, was victory and we see that as a victory,” he said.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com