Before European settlement in Canada, Indigenous peoples spoke a wide variety of languages. As a means of assimilating Indigenous peoples, colonial policies like the Indian Act and residential schools forbid the speaking of Indigenous languages. These restrictions have led to the ongoing endangerment of Indigenous languages in Canada. In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that for about 40 Indigenous languages in Canada, there are only about 500 speakers or less. Indigenous communities and various educational institutions have taken measures to prevent more language loss and to preserve Indigenous languages.
Many Indigenous languages in Canada are endangered because of a history of restrictive colonial policies that prohibited the speaking of these mother tongues. In an attempt to assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society, the Indian Act and residential schools forced Indigenous people to abandon their native languages. Residential school students caught speaking these languages were punished. Even after these schools were shut down, loss of language knowledge and the fear of speaking Indigenous languages lingered, and therefore inhibited the passing of these languages from one generation to the next.
In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that for about 40 Indigenous languages in Canada, there are only about 500 speakers or less. This number does not distinguish between fluent and learning speakers, which means that a more accurate estimation of the number of fluent language speakers of any particular Indigenous language might be less. There has been some improvement, however. Statistics Canada revealed that 260,550 Indigenous people reported the ability to speak an Indigenous language; this represents a 3.1 per cent increase from 2006.
In 2016, Algonquian languages had the highest speaking population (175,825), followed by Cree (96,575) and Ojibwe (28,130). Also encouraging is the fact that in 2016, the number of Indigenous people able to speak an Indigenous language exceeded the number of those who reported an Indigenous mother tongue. According to Statistics Canada, this suggests an increase in the number of new speakers and language learners, especially among youth. (See also Indigenous Sign Languages in Canada.)
Programs for learning, teaching, documenting and revitalizing Indigenous languages have been developed by various colleges and universities. For example, Indigenous language revitalization programs at the University of Victoria, the First Nations Languages Program at the University of British Columbia, and the Yukon Native Language Centre at Yukon College.
Communities have carried out more in-depth documentation of languages. In addition, organizations, such as First Voice and the First Peoples’ Cultural Council exist to support the health of Indigenous languages. Many websites have been developed to encourage language learning; one example is the Michif Language Project.
Indigenous Languages Act
In an effort to provide government protection of Indigenous languages in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) on 6 December 2016 that his government will introduce a law to preserve these endangered languages. On 5 February 2019, the Canadian government tabled the Indigenous Languages Act, which seeks to protect and revitalize Indigenous languages in Canada.
The Act was developed in association with the AFN, Métis Nation and Department of Canadian Heritage. Largely left out of the discussions, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami pointed out some of the Act’s flaws, including the absence of Inuit-specific content and “no federal obligation to fund Indigenous languages…[or] provide for reliable federal support.”
The Act received royal assent in July 2019. It seeks to address the Truth and Reconciliation’s Calls to Action (numbers 13, 14 and 15), as well as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.