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Indigenous languages are at risk of disappearing from our social fabric. In a bid to keep the cultural connection alive, a group has been using languages on billboards and signs to provoke people on why it’s important to keep these languages in use.Susan Blight

Senator Serge Joyal has been a force in the Liberal Party since before he served in the cabinet of Pierre Trudeau in the early 1980s. For the past seven years, he has been trying to convince the Senate to pass an Aboriginal Languages Act, which would pledge the government to "encourage and support" language revitalization.

"Doing nothing would only result in further deterioration [of the languages]," the senator said after a recent second-reading debate of his Bill S-212, which, as a private member's bill, could not compel Ottawa to spend any money.

The senator's long vigil in the upper house for indigenous language preservation may soon be over, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said recently that his government will present its own Indigenous Languages Act. He gave the Assembly of First Nations no details as to what the bill might contain, when it would appear or how much money would go toward its enactment, but said it would be written in consultation with indigenous leaders.

Read more: Trudeau pledges annual meetings with indigenous leaders to advance reconciliation

Read more: Trudeau reassures First Nations of commitment to deliver on promises

The chiefs applauded his statement, because indigenous languages currently have no protection under Canadian law. The Prime Minister has said several times that he would implement all calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, but this was the first time he explicitly committed himself to its recommendation for a languages bill.

Language activists and teachers, however, say it will take more than legislation to fix everything that's wrong with the government's current efforts at language preservation. They say the system is an administrative nightmare, poorly funded and haphazardly run by the departments of Canadian Heritage and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).

Heritage's Aboriginal Languages Initiative (ALI), the only program at any level of government aimed solely at language revitalization, is so strangled in red tape that it routinely runs out of time to disburse more than four dollars of every five, from a yearly allocation of only $5-million. Aboriginal communities were incensed by the news in October that 11 per cent of INAC funds for indigenous programs habitually go unspent, but the rate at ALI is almost twice as bad: 21 per cent.

INAC's delivery of services was recently described as "beyond unacceptable" by federal Auditor-General Michael Ferguson. "There is now more than a decade's worth of audits showing that programs have failed to effectively serve Canada's indigenous peoples," he said.

Most of the 60-odd languages native to Canada are in an increasingly precarious state, and even the three strongest – Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut – are challenged by the passing of elders, aboriginal migration to cities and English and French media saturation of even remote communities. The major damage was done not by demographic or technological change, however, but by a deliberate federal policy of language extinction, through the residential-school system.

A 2003 Heritage report called language revitalization "an extremely high priority." Recommendations by a special task force in 2005 prompted the Liberal government of the day to commit $160-million to a proposed aboriginal languages institute. The Conservatives took power the following year and shelved the idea, which the Liberals had failed to enact.

The Prime Minister said in speeches last June that revival of indigenous languages was "essential" to help solve social problems on reserves, including youth suicide. The hodgepodge of existing programs, however, treat the languages either as a secondary concern or as a short-term endeavour.

"We've been talking about the importance of indigenous languages for 50 years," said Stephanie Roy, director of Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute (KTEI), an indigenous college on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. "Every study, and UNDRIP [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] and the TRC report, support our children's right to learn in their language. We have to stop the rhetoric, and just do it."

Many indigenous communities have mobilized to revive their languages, with or without help from federal departments whose decisions can seem capricious to those on the ground. KTEI had been receiving about $250,000 a year from INAC for a basket of programs including a one-year Ojibway certificate for adults, offered with Sault College; and a teacher-training program for elementary-level Ojibway teachers, with Canadore College. In July, however, INAC informed Ms. Roy that KTEI would get nothing for the current academic year.

"I told them, 'That's really hard to work with. We have students coming in four weeks,'" Ms. Roy said. Six other indigenous colleges in Ontario were also cut off without a cent, though some funding was restored after a concerted lobbying campaign by regional chiefs.

In early 2016, Ojibway-language activist Jessica Benson began planning a three-week summer immersion program for intermediate adult learners on Manitoulin. She and her project partners – Mskwaankwad Rice and Monty McGahey – applied for funds from ALI. "They really liked our program, because there's nothing else in Canada that offers an intermediate program [in Ojibway], which is why we started it," said Ms. Benson, who has taught immersion classes for first-graders at KTEI. "They said, 'We're probably going to fund you, but we can't say for sure till July.'"

That seemed late for a summer program, but with the idea that approval was a near-formality, the three hired teachers, booked facilities and recruited students. In July, they received a brief note from ALI, saying that instead of the $48,000 the partners had planned for, they would get nothing.

"I don't think we're ever going to apply again, because it was a terrible experience," Ms. Benson said. She and her partners scrambled to salvage a shorter program with the same number of study hours, with last-minute help from the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation and KTEI.

The latest federal budget committed $55-million a year to indigenous languages and culture during the current mandate. That means an extra $140,000 this year for a Mohawk-immersion school on the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. It's enough to help pay for language training for a few teachers, said Louie John Diabo, director of finance and operations at Kahnawake Education Centre, but not to pay them a wage comparable with what they would make off-reserve. "It's a good start, but it's secondary funding, not part of our core," Mr. Diabo said. "It can be reversed or clawed back at any time." All of the new indigenous-language funds in the budget, and the money that passes through ALI, are project-based, which means recipients have to report and reapply every year, and have no assurance of continuing support. Mr. Diabo churns out extensive paperwork for 28 short-term project grants every year, to maintain ongoing educational efforts he sees as fundamental. "It's absolutely ridiculous," he said.

The new $55-million is administered by INAC, through a funding stream geared mainly toward improving professional standards and graduation rates in reserve schools. Language revitalization is not among the five stated main objectives of the stream and is not a top priority of the department's educational arm.

"A child's confidence, pride and sense of self are critical elements in their educational success, and language and culture are vital portions of that self-worth," said Chris Rainer, director-general of INAC's education branch. "But our objective is not the preservation of language and culture. Our objective is student success." If any student's success happens to include knowledge of their own language, Mr. Rainer said, that's "a happy byproduct."

"We don't see it as a byproduct," said Rebecca Jamieson, president of Six Nations Polytechnic, an aboriginal college near Brantford, Ont. "We see it as a critical part of indigenous education. There's a huge recovery challenge ahead of us, in terms of maintaining and recovering our knowledge systems, our conceptual models and everything that's embedded in our languages."

Six Nations has run a two-year diploma program in Mohawk and Cayuga with McMaster University since 2009, and in January, 2016, began its own two-year degree program, with 25 full-time adult students. Forty more started classes in the fall, though Ms. Jamieson says she has no assurance that there will be money to fund their second year.

"We don't get core funding from any source," she said, alluding to the endless cycle of annual applications and reports for short-term grants. "It's a very inefficient and unreasonable system. It puts at risk the credibility of indigenous education."

The "byproduct" approach will guarantee language extinction, said Christi Belcourt, a Métis artist, language activist and member of the Onaman Collective, which organizes Ojibway immersion weekends near Espanola, Ont., west of Sudbury. "A couple of hours a week is not enough to produce language speakers," Ms. Belcourt said. "We need full-immersion programs, creative, community-driven programs that make the language a priority."

Onaman's Anishinaabemowin Wiigwaam retreats take place on the land, not in a classroom, said Ms. Belcourt, because indigenous languages are land-based and action-oriented. "When you're out there smoking fish, doing things with your hands, with elders passing on their skills, there's a whole lot of things that you wouldn't get sitting in a classroom. You're not only learning the language, you're learning the culture." Anishinaabe Wiigwaam didn't fit the criteria at ALI or at any other government funding vehicle, Ms. Belcourt said, so Onaman has relied on its own fundraising. "But we can't bake-sale our way out of this crisis," she said. "We're in the absolute crux of a language emergency. There's no way that communities can raise the money that's needed."

Unlike language funds at INAC, ALI is open to applications from aboriginal people anywhere in Canada. Its annual allocation, however, remains stuck at $5-million, the same amount as when the program began in 1998. According to a Heritage evaluation report published last year, only 28 per cent of applications receive funding from ALI.

The same Heritage report says that even though competition is fierce and the program is underfunded, ALI managed to disburse only about $4-million during each of the previous five years. The remaining $1-million "lapsed" – returned to general coffers. This was because "projects are approved too late in the fiscal year to be funded at the fully approved amount," the report says. Even though ALI gives itself a generous 210 days to respond to applications, over a four-year period it missed its target 42 per cent to 91 per cent of the time.

ALI is notorious among indigenous communities for the complexity of its application process. Ms. Benson said her application included "question after question, about silly stuff, like they didn't really know what they were talking about." Mr. Diabo calls his numerous experiences with ALI "an absolute nightmare. They don't want you to become dependent, so they ask for a different proposal each year" – even for a continuous multiyear endeavour, such as teaching elementary-school kids to speak Mohawk.

ALI's application form for 2016-17 said that priority would be given to "projects that demonstrate innovative use of technology," even though such resources are scarce in many indigenous communities. Smoking fish with elders was presumably not what ALI bureaucrats had in mind.

"Quite frankly, we don't bother with ALI any more," Ms. Jamieson, of Six Nations Polytechnic, said. "We have spent endless hours submitting proposals and being denied, even though we're an indigenous institute offering languages and working with partners in the community. It's not worth our time. It took us five dollars to get one."

The federal government's other significant revitalization fund is the Territorial Languages Accord, which transfers $4.1-million to Nunavut and the Yukon for programs directed by regional governments or in aboriginal communities. Total federal funding to support Inuktitut in Nunavut is estimated at $44 an Inuk a year. Members of Nunavut's small francophone community can count on $4,000 a person in official-languages funding, according to senator and former TRC chair Murray Sinclair, who made the comparison on the Senate floor while speaking in qualified support of Bill S-212.

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly refused numerous requests for an interview about ALI, or about anything else to do with federal policy on aboriginal languages, for which she holds cabinet responsibility. A statement from her office said that Ms. Joly is "working to prepare a larger, renovated initiative," beginning with a fresh round of consultations with indigenous communities, to add to the similar consultations held every five years since ALI began.

The most recent round, for the ALI evaluation published last year, contained the same complaints as the first evaluation in 2003: that the program is too slow, too opaque in its operation and too focused on the short term. The 2015 report found overwhelming support in indigenous communities for multiyear funding, but the latest round of applications, which closed on Tuesday Dec. 6, excluded all projects that couldn't be completed within nine months.

"For years, the government has been able to point to ALI and say, 'See? We're doing something about languages,'" said Khelsilem Rivers, a Squamish graphic designer and language activist born on reserve land in North Vancouver. "But it falls well short of what's needed in our communities. They ask for a ridiculous amount of information for a grant that's really small."

The Squamish language has only seven fluent speakers, which would seem to put it at the brink of extinction. Mr. Rivers, however, is optimistic about its future. In September, his language group, Kwi Awt Stelmexw, launched a full-time, five-day-a-week immersion program in co-operation with Simon Fraser University. By the end of the current school year, the 14 students enrolled will be fluent or nearly so and able to teach others. Mr. Rivers is also involved in an at-home program, to help families do practical language recovery as a household.

Mr. Rivers said that federal support for aboriginal languages should not be controlled by the existing bureaucracies in Ottawa. "Indigenous people should be designing the programs, setting the goals and reporting requirements and identifying ways to measure success, from our own standards as indigenous-language advocates," he said.

Mr. Rivers points to New Zealand as an example of what the federal government should be considering. New Zealand has had a Maori Language Act and Maori Language Commission since 1987. Maori is promoted both as an official language and as a linguistic heritage that all New Zealanders should share.

The language map is far more complex in Canada, which is home to around 60 indigenous tongues in 12 distinct linguistic groups. Revival efforts will always be spread between different language communities, which may need different strategies to survive.

But indigenous language survival isn't just a concern for aboriginal people, Ms. Belcourt said. "There's a richness and a world view inherent in the languages that is different than in English," she said. "There are concepts embedded in them about how to live in balance with the environment. We all need that wisdom now, to deal with climate change. If indigenous languages go, it's not just us who suffers, it's the world."