Calls to Action on Language: Systemic Issues
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Indigenous Peoples are rising up and taking action to protect their languages. Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (the organization which represents Inuit under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act) recently took legal action against the government of Nunavut for failing to offer equitable education in Inuktut (a term that encompasses all Inuit languages). In 2017, CBC reported that that the federal government allocated roughly the same amount of money to fund French language services as Inuktut, but the number of people who claim Inuktut as their mother tongue is 50 times greater than French. On a per-capita basis of French versus Inuktuk-speakers, this is equivalent to $8,190 funding for French and $184 for Inuktuk services.
In the spirit of Reconciliation, shouldn’t preserving, promoting and revitalizing Indigenous languages be prioritized through equitable funding? What action have governments taken to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC’s) Calls to Action on language? How have systemic issues limited our ability to implement them?
Image: Ellis Quinn, Radio-Canada
Federal Implementation of Calls to Action on Language
In 2019, Canada enacted the Indigenous Languages Act, which recognizes that section 35 Aboriginal rights“include rights related to Indigenous languages.” This Act implements the TRC’s calls to action 13, 15 and most of 14, as well as aspects of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. It also creates the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages, an organization that lies outside of the federal bureaucracy and is empowered to help Indigenous Peoples preserve, promote and revitalize their languages.
The federal government also allocated funding to support these objectives. In 2019 Canada promised $333.7 million over five years with an ongoing commitment of $115.7 million per year. In 2021, funding towards Indigenous language initiatives was combined with culture and together totaled more than $700 million.
These federal initiatives show a promising trend. But passing legislation and allocating funding are only two steps. Implementing the Act will take even more effort. The experience in Nunavut is illuminating in this regard.
Initiatives by the Government of Nunavut
In 2008, the Territory of Nunavut established that “the Inuit Language, English and French are the Official Languages of Nunavut.” The three official languages are equal in status, but the Act is interpreted in a way that gives priority to the revitalization of Inuktut language and improves access to justice and government services in Inuktut.
However, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. has raised concerns about the implementation of these laws. It is alarmed that recent legislation has imposed delays such that the language of instruction for Inuit children in kindergarten to grade 12 will not be fully transitioned to Inuktuk until 2039. In other words, it is easy to pass a law, but it is quite another matter to implement them.
Casting Light on Systemic Issues
Progress will likely face systemic issues that impose seemingly insurmountable challenges. A legal or bureaucratic system can systematically disadvantage minority groups if developed based on principles, priorities and assumptions that favour the dominant group. Throughout history and even today, systems have been used to disadvantage certain groups both deliberately and inadvertently.
For example, on June 14th, the Government of Canada announced that government-issued identification will recognize traditional Indigenous names. However, the systems that generate government identification do not yet recognize Indigenous characters. They only recognize the Roman alphabet with French accents, the apostrophe, hyphen and period. We don’t know the reason for omitting Indigenous languages. It is likely due to a combination of factors that reflect historic suppression of Indigenous language and recognition of English and French as Canada’s only official languages. Regardless of whether or not the policy intended to suppress Indigenous languages, the effects nevertheless constitute systemic oppression.
As we continue to implement the Indigenous Languages Act and the TRC’s Calls to Action, we will likely discover more systemic issues that disadvantage Indigenous Peoples. Perhaps systemic issues underpin the inequitable funding of Inuktuk education and services in Nunavut. We should not shy away from these problems, but face them head-on. Reconciliation is a journey, one that will take many generations, long after governments make their “tick in the box” next to the Calls to Action.
Until next time,
 SC 1993, c 29.  Nick Murray, “Nunavut Inuit sue territorial government over right to education in Inuktut”, CBC News (13 October 2021) online: CBC News <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/nti-suing-government-of-nunavut-inuktut-education-1.6209460>.  Kieran Oudshoorn, “Nunavut Tunngavik calls for equitable funding for Inuit languages”, CBC News (7 June 2017) online: CBC News <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/equitable-funding-for-inuit-languages-1.4148129>.  Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Calls to Action, (Winnipeg: TRC Canada, 2015).  Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11 art 35 [Constitution Act, 1982].  Indigenous Languages Act, SC 2019, c 23 art 6.  Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Calls to Action (Winnipeg: TRC Canada, 2015), number 13 [TRC, Calls to Action].  United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, SC 2021, c 14.  Indigenous Languages Act, supra note ??? art 12.  Ibid at art 23.  Budget,Investing in the Middle Class: Budget 2019 online (pdf): Government of Canada<https://www.budget.gc.ca/2019/docs/plan/budget-2019-en.pdf> at 137.  Budget, online (pdf): Government of Canada <https://www.budget.gc.ca/2021/pdf/budget-2021-en.pdf> at 257.  Official Languages Act, SNu 2008, c 10, art 3.  Ibid.  See “Bill 25 Education Act Amendments Disappoint Again”, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (5 June 2019), online: Tunngavik <https://www.tunngavik.com/news/bill-25-education-act-amendments-disappoint-again/>.  “6 years after TRC call to action, Indigenous Peoples to use traditional names on government ID”, APTN National News (14 June 2021), online: APTN News <https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/6-years-after-trc-call-to-action-indigenous-peoples-to-use-traditional-names-on-government-id/>.