Number of Indigenous language speakers drops in Saskatchewan

Number of Indigenous language speakers drops in Saskatchewan

Indigenous language skills are being lost in Saskatoon, despite the efforts of educators in the province and the emphasis placed on language preservation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Data released Wednesday by Statistics Canada from the latest census, gathered in 2016, shows the number of people in Saskatchewan who identify an Indigenous language as their mother tongue dropped from 30,895 in 2011 to 28,340.

"What should have been done was to document it and develop some curriculum to teach it in elementary school. This was not done when it was the time to do it, in the 1980s," said Vincent Collette, a professor of Indigenous languages in the linguistics department at First Nations University in Regina.

"We're at least 30 years too late for many of these languages," he said.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission outlined four specific calls to action regarding Indigenous language, including calling upon the federal government to acknowledge Indigenous language rights, enact an Indigenous languages act and provide sufficient funds for revitalization and preservation of Indigenous languages.

Down in Saskatoon, up marginally in Regina

Saskatchewan's Indigenous language-speaking population is on the decline, overall. 

In Saskatoon, people identifying "Aboriginal languages" as their mother tongue dropped from 1,460 in 2011 to 1,265 in the latest census data.

The number of Saskatoon households where residents speak primarily Indigenous languages at home dropped by five, from 350 to 345 in 2016.

In Regina, though, there are five more households where Indigenous languages are the primary form of communication. The number of people identifying Indigenous languages as their mother tongue rose from 370 in 2011 to 460.

Some languages, like Dakota, are growing in the province, which Collette attributes to educational efforts.

"Documenting and writing textbooks about language have given fruits because we see the number of Dakota speakers went from 150 to 220. That's considerable."

The languages spoken by more of the population, like Plains Cree, are not growing in the same way.

"It went down about 2,000 speakers," said Collette

"If it goes down 2,000 speakers every five years, it means in the census of 2066 I'll be a grandfather and no one will be speaking Cree anymore."

Building on the numbers

While Saskatchewan schools and universities are creating more Indigenous language curricula, it may not be enough.

"It's a complex problem that touches on history, social exclusion and of course on residential schooling," said Collette.

He is working with an elder to document and preserve the Nakota language, recording full sentences rather than just words, short stories, and names of plants and animals — "anything that is important to the people, so you really have to work with the people from the community," Collette said.

Other initiatives are generating more interest and growth in Indigenous language. For example, Saskatoon's Cree bilingual school, St. Frances, is operating over capacity and has a waiting list.

Cree languages like Plains Cree, Swampy Cree, and Woods Cree are the Indigenous languages more commonly spoken in Saskatchewan.

Still, several Indigenous languages are at risk of dying out altogether.

"It might spark something in the future generations, speakers unborn now. We're hoping they will get interested in the language and revive it," said Collette.