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A small child gets a ride during the 101st Calgary Stampede in Calgary in 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
A small child gets a ride during the 101st Calgary Stampede in Calgary in 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Globe editorial

Globe editorial: How to preserve Canada’s indigenous languages Add to ...

There are 60 indigenous languages in Canada, more or less; the most spoken are Inuktitut and the related Cree and Ojibway. But while they are many, they risk disappearing. What is needed is a national effort to preserve them.

Senator Serge Joyal has been heroically trying to get a private member’s bill through the Senate to help revitalize indigenous languages. But that can’t possibly work, for the simple reason that a Senate bill can’t force the government to spend any money.

More promising is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s vow to introduce a bill to re-energize indigenous languages. He offered no details when he made the announcement, but it’s still progress.

For many, the urgent interest in this issue is about preserving dying languages, which are understood mostly by elderly people. In an era of reconciliation with indigenous peoples, putting money into the preservation of native languages would be a concrete gesture that could produce equally concrete benefits.

Section 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, if adopted in a measured way, can be a helpful guide. It guarantees the right to the preservation of native languages and literature, and the right to retain native place names. It also guarantees the right to a trial in one’s native language, which would be too difficult to accommodate in all cases.

The teaching of indigenous languages should be a priority on reserves, especially the most remote ones. Young people there may be most in need of tools to help overcome their alienation.

But there can also be excitement and value in learning a language and culture that you don’t have any hereditary link to, something non-native Canadians might be interested in.

The University of Winnipeg’s compulsory policy that all its students take at least one course in an aboriginal subject goes too far. But the intention behind that requirement is good.

These are some of the principles on which the government can form new policies on native languages – and not just for people with indigenous ancestry.

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