“We traveled across different territories, learning different languages as we went along.”
– Elder Margaret George
Colonization in Canada has taken many forms since settlers arrived in the territories now known as Canada. The policy that inflicted the most damage on Indigenous languages was residential schools. Designed to carry out the federal government’s aggressive assimilation approach by forcibly removing Indigenous children from their parents and communities to attend church-run, government-funded schools, they severed the transmission of language. Begun in the 1880s, with approximately 80 schools operating at the height of the residential school era in 1931, the policy began to shift in the 1960s and the final school closed in 1996.
Over 150,000 students attended residential schools, and we call them survivors in recognition of the abuses they suffered. English or French was mandatory on pain of punishment, which was often severe. Many children spoke only their mother tongue on arrival at these institutions and by the time they left, they had forgotten their language or blocked it out due to trauma. As a result, sometimes they were unable to communicate with family members when they returned to their communities. In addition to residential schools, over 200,000 students attended federally-run Indian day schools with similar language policies.
To learn more about residential schools and language, see pp.47-58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) publication “The Survivors Speak.”
Starting in the 1990s the government and churches began to acknowledge their responsibility in supporting an education system designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” The federal government issued an apology to residential school survivors in 2008, compensated survivors of residential schools, created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in 2019 the Federal Court approved the settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the government to compensate First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who attended Indian day schools.
This extensive system undermined Indigenous culture and disrupted families for generations. Because the intent was to eradicate all aspects of Indigenous culture in young people and interrupt its transmission from one generation to the next, the residential school system is considered a form of cultural genocide.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is a document that describes both individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples around the world. It offers guidance on cooperative relationships with Indigenous peoples to states, the United Nations, and other international organizations based on the principles of equality, partnership, good faith and mutual respect.
UNDRIP was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, with 144 states in favour, 4 votes against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and 11 abstentions. In May 2016, Canada became a full supporter of the declaration.
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.
2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected and also to ensure that Indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.
2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.
3. States shall, in conjunction with Indigenous peoples, take effective measures in order for Indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access when possible to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.
2019 was the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Language. Visit here for more information.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) launched in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). Its goal was to witness and acknowledge survivors’ experience, educate Canadians on the facts behind the residential school system, and lay the foundation for reconciliation.
The final report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, documents the tragic experiences of Canadian residential school students. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to implementing all 94 of the recommendations or “calls to action” set out in the June 2015 summary. These covered a broad range of areas including language.
In order to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission makes the following calls to action.
Language and Culture
13. We call upon the federal government to acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights.
14. We call upon the federal government to enact an Aboriginal Languages Act that incorporates the following principles:
i. Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them.
ii. Aboriginal language rights are reinforced by the Treaties.
iii. The federal government has a responsibility to provide sufficient funds for Aboriginal-language revitalization and preservation.
iv. The preservation, revitalization, and strengthening of Aboriginal languages and cultures are best managed by Aboriginal people and communities.
v. Funding for Aboriginal language initiatives must reflect the diversity of Aboriginal languages.
15. We call upon the federal government to appoint, in consultation with Aboriginal groups, an Aboriginal Languages Commissioner. The commissioner should help promote Aboriginal languages and report on the adequacy of federal funding of Aboriginal-languages initiatives.
16. We call upon post-secondary institutions to create university and college degree and diploma programs in Aboriginal languages.
17. We call upon all levels of government to enable residential school Survivors and their families to reclaim names changed by the residential school system by waiving administrative costs for a period of five years for the name-change process and the revision of official identity documents, such as birth certificates, passports, driver’s licenses, health cards, status cards, and social insurance numbers.