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The True Cost of Indigenous Language Revitalization

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

"A special kind of beauty exists which is born in language, of language, and for language." ~ Gaston Bachelard

Tansi Nitotemtik,

As former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde said in 2017, “Indigenous languages are Canada's national treasures. They are our identity. We simply have to put greater effort into rejuvenating and revitalizing them. It is key to moving forward.[1] A year prior, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also made the historical statement that "we know all too well how residential schools and other decisions by the government were used as a deliberate tool to eliminate Indigenous languages and cultures. If we are to truly advance Reconciliation, we must undo the lasting damage that resulted."[2]

Recognized by the highest leaders of our country and felt every day by Indigenous people across the nation, the importance of language revitalization requires no preface. With over 1.4 million people in Canada identifying themselves as Indigenous, and more than 600 First Nations communities in Canada, representing more than 50 Nations and 50 Indigenous languages, the task called upon by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Calls to Action 13 and 14 are at a pivotal moment.[3] Call to Action #13 calls upon the federal government to acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights and Call to Action #14 calls upon the federal government to enact legislation that provides sufficient funding and support for Indigenous languages “as a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society.”[4]

Yet, the precarious condition of Indigenous languages in Canada persists. As a result, “in Canada most of the sixty or so Indigenous languages originally spoken here are in danger of extinction in less than a decade. Some predict that only three will survive into the next century.”[5]

While language revitalization takes place across the country on various levels and in creative ways, the systemic issues that suppressed Indigenous languages rage on. As the Supreme Court wrote in 1999, “language rights are not negative rights or passive rights; they can only be enjoyed if the means are there.”[6] The “freedom to choose is meaningless" if no positive steps are taken to actively combat Indigenous language erasure within the Canadian state.[7]

Our post-secondary institutions are active contributors to upholding systemic inequalities that provide barriers to revitalization. As contributors to a system that systemically fought to eradicate Indigenous culture and language, interconnected in every way, it is not enough that post-secondaries are not named in the TRC Calls to Action – the responsibility to actively engage in meaningful solutions remains present.

At the University of Alberta, the average three-credit course is set at approximately $600.00.[8] This includes various Indigenous language courses.

At a time where Reconciliation must be more than a word, charging Indigenous students to reclaim and revitalize their traditional languages must be re-evaluated. Post-secondaries have the means, the language courses are available, but to effect meaningful change and move our country further along the path to true Reconciliation, they need to be accessible.

Accessible to the student whose grandparents buried their words to protect their families from the same trauma inflicted upon them as a result of Residential Schools.

Accessible to the community members working through intergenerational trauma because of colonial policies and laws.

Accessible to those still finding their way.

As we look towards words like Indigenization, Reconciliation, Truth, Diversity, and Equitability, it is integral that we remember the power of language.

The cost of a language revitalization course at the university may be $600, but the cost of charging for it may be so much more.

Until next time,


[1] "Perry Bellegarde on recognizing this land’s founding Indigenous peoples" (21 June 2017), online: Macleans <>.

[2] Lorena Fontaine, David Leitch, Andrea Bear Nicholas, Fernand de Varennes, “What Canada's New Indigenous Languages Law Needs to Say and Say Urgently” (2017-2020) Revue de Droit Linguistique, online: <>, 82.

[3] “Indigenous peoples and culture” (04 May 2021), online: <>.

[4] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “Calls to Action,” (2015) at 2, online (pdf): Government of B.C. <>.

[5] Fontaine, supra, note 2, 82.

[6] Fontaine, supra, note 2, 83.

[7] Fontaine, supra, note 2, 84.

[8] “Undergraduate Cost Calculator” (2021), online: University of Alberta <>.

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