March 31, 2019 is National Indigenous Languages Day, a time to acknowledge the importance of language and culture to the well-being and resilience of Indigenous communities around the world, reads a statement from Scott Fraser, minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, in celebration of National Indigenous Languages Day.
It’s also a day to lift up our hands to the many language champions working to address the language crisis facing Indigenous peoples. Champions like a young woman from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation who told me that learning her language was like seeing the world in colour for the first time.
Crisis is a strong word, but an appropriate one. Colonial policies designed to sever Indigenous peoples’ connections to language and culture had devastating results. Today, fewer than 6,000 people speak one of 34 Indigenous languages in B.C.
Last year, I was proud to announce a landmark $50 million to support language revitalization in British Columbia. Already this funding is making a difference on the ground, allowing the First Peoples’ Cultural Council to offer more language revitalization supports to communities. These include more language grants — 167 this year, up from 60 last year — and more training opportunities, with more than 475 people involved, compared to 125 last year. The council is also launching new programs, such as Reclaiming My Language: A Course for Silent Speakers, which is designed for people who understand but don’t speak their language.
We are in a crisis, but there is reason for hope. Years of colonial oppression mean there is no quick solution to the language crisis facing Indigenous peoples, but we can all be encouraged with the growing interest in, and support for, Indigenous language revitalization across the country and around the world. In its recent budget, the federal government committed to some new investments to support Indigenous languages and legislation to protect and promote Indigenous languages across the country. The United Nations has designated 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and in June, the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation will welcome Indigenous language speakers and experts to Victoria for a major international conference on Indigenous language revitalization.
True and lasting reconciliation with Indigenous peoples means strong support for Indigenous communities’ efforts to reclaim their voice. Grand Chief Ed John, one of the champions of the UN designation, recently said that Indigenous languages are the essence and fabric of Indigenous cultures and fundamental to survival, dignity and well-being. By celebrating National Indigenous Languages Day on March 31, we acknowledge the power of those words and how fundamental language is to the identity of Indigenous peoples in British Columbia.