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Mark Indigenous languages decade by making Inuktitut official in Canada: Inuit UN rep

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OTTAWA — When Lorraine Whitman's father, Chief Joseph Peters, asked for a cup of tea in his native Mi'kmaq, the care-home staff could not understand him. 

Whitman, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, recalls how her elderly father, afflicted by Alzheimer's disease, reverted to speaking solely in his mother tongue. The former chief of Glooscap First Nation grew frustrated when none of the nurses knew what he was saying. Whitman had to go in daily to translate for him. 

"It was something as basic as 'Could I have a cup of tea?'" she recalls. 

Whitman thinks it is a right for Indigenous people to be understood in their own land.

This year marks the beginning of an international decade of Indigenous languages in which Canada is to play a key role. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) drive to revive and protect Indigenous languages will include initiatives to protect endangered tongues such as Michif, the Métis language.

Canada is to represent North America and Western Europe on a UNESCO task force which includes three Inuit, First Nations and Métis representatives. 

All three said they wanted to see more action to make Indigenous languages more widely spoken in Canada, with measures to ensure they are also taught in schools.

In Canada, Whitman said revitalizing Indigenous languages should be a key plank of Canada's reconciliation efforts following policies designed to erase languages such as Cree. Speaking Indigenous languages was banned in residential schools. 

"When they took our children from us they took our language with them," she said. 

The Inuit representative on the UNESCO task force wants Canada to make Inuktitut an official language alongside English and French. 

Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), the Inuit representative body for treaty rights and negotiations, said Canada should show its commitment to Indigenous languages by designating Inuktitut as one of Canada's official languages. 

Around 70 per cent of Nunavut's population speaks Inuktitut and it is recognized as an official language in the territory. But most children are taught in English.

Kotierk said that only by recognizing Inuktitut as one of Canada's official languages would schools receive guaranteed support and funding to teach in Inuktitut, as do English and French schools. This would also ensure that all essential services, including health care, are made available in the Inuit language. 

Kotierk said an Inuk woman needing urgent help phoned 911 but was not understood by the operator. This must change, she said. 

If Canada recognized Inuktitut as an official language, it would mean adequate resources would be provided to support the language, she said.

Kotierk wants Canada to look at the example of Greenland, which is part of Denmark, and has a majority Inuit population. She said she was heartened to see road signs in Kalaallisut, the local language which is related to Inuktitut, when she went there for talks to promote Arctic region languages. 

Another of Canada's representatives on the UNESCO task force, Richard Kistabish, thinks all Canadians should learn at least a few words of Indigenous languages spoken in their region "as a recognition" that they were here first. 

"It's a matter of principle," he said.

Kistabish, who is Algonquin from the Abitibiwinni First Nation in Quebec, is fluent in Anishinaabemowin, French and English. 

He said speaking your own language should be "a right."

But he warned that Anishinaabemowin, which he said now had only 4,000 to 5,000 speakers in Canada, is "dying."

To keep the language alive, he and other members of his community now hold several gatherings a year where only Anishinaabemowin is spoken.  

Clara Morin Dal Col, a Métis leader who also sits on the new UNESCO task force, warned that Michif, which grew primarily from Cree and French, is now "critically endangered."

She said it is still the first language in parts of Saskatchewan, and is also spoken in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and other parts of Canada. Even so, she said, it is a "dying language" now mainly spoken by elders. 

Morin Dal Col said the decade of Indigenous languages should seek to build an archive of recordings of elders speaking their mother tongues, so the vocabulary and pronunciation of languages such as Michif can be studied by future generations. 

"Our elders are so important to pass the language on. It's really important to teach our language and to archive it," she said. 

Morin Dal Col said that the government, in passing the Indigenous Languages Act in 2019, has done a lot to revive Michif and other Indigenous tongues. She hoped the international decade of Indigenous languages would provide an impetus to do more. 

The Indigenous Languages Act provided for long-term funding of Indigenous languages and established a commissioner of Indigenous languages.

Among the projects the government has already funded is a Cree language-learning app and a virtual-reality video game that teaches Blackfoot.

In his mandate letter, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez was tasked by the prime minister with promoting and preserving Indigenous languages, such as Cree and Inuktitut, in Canada.

A Heritage department spokeswoman said the government will "continue to work with Indigenous partners on planning specific initiatives and activities to advance the decade’s objectives of raising awareness of the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to revitalize and promote Indigenous languages." 

Lori Idlout, NDP MP for Nunavut who swore in as an MP in Inuktitut, her mother tongue, said "First Nation, Métis and Inuit languages are essential to our communities' way of life and form an important part of our identity."

She said Indigenous people "should have the right to educate their children in their language."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2021.

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press