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Revitalizing languages key to UNDRIP

  • June 5, 2021

When it came time to officially endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Guadalupe Circle chose to focus on what UNDRIP could mean for defending and revitalizing endangered languages.

“The Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle continues to emphasize the importance of Indigenous languages,” the group said in a Pentecost Sunday statement, saying it is “committed to encouraging and celebrating the revitalization of these teachings and languages.”

Canada’s Indigenous languages are up against extinction and the primary collaboration between Catholic bishops and Indigenous elders knows it.

The role of Church-run residential schools in eradicating Indigenous languages has been highlighted by the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and its 94 Calls to Action. With passage of Bill C-15, Canada will have to make its laws consistent with Article 13 of UNDRIP.

“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,” reads the 2007 UN resolution.

That would fall in line with TRC Call to Action 14, which demands Parliament enact an “Aboriginal Languages Act.” But it may be too late, said Mary Ann Corbiere, associate professor of Anishnaabe language at the University of Sudbury.

“I’m not optimistic,” Corbiere said. “The only hope is that there will be a small group, or there is a small group, who both have the aptitude and the commitment.”

Corbiere has spent the last 30 years documenting her mother tongue and producing educational materials used by language teachers throughout traditional Anishinaabe territory surrounding the Great Lakes. Despite the effort, few young people have advanced enough in their language to be called truly fluent, she said.

“They’re still often just stuck at rote questions and answers, rote phrases, word lists. For whatever reason, there is an issue with the curriculum.”

Nor does Corbiere see a role for the Church in helping Indigenous people recover their language. While many elders remain committed Christians, young people have turned their back on the Church, she said.

The residential schools history, highlighted again by the discovery of a mass grave at a residential school in Kamloops, isn’t helping.

“Among the younger learners, I do detect quite an anti-Christian bias now, because they’ve heard about the residential schools and they are feeling hurt on behalf of their elders, who were in the residential schools. I suspect they would be resistant,” she said.

Linguists predict that by the end of this century 90 per cent of the 6,000 to 7,000 languages spoken on Earth, most of them Indigenous, will be extinct. There’s no reason to believe Canada can avoid the language die-off.

“We’re at a very precarious stage there in terms of intergenerational transmission,” she said. “Even the language I speak, which most people know as Ojibway — we ourselves generally say we’re Anishnaabe — even though it’s considered among those with the strongest chances of survival, along with Inuktitut and Cree, even in our case….” The challenge the Anishnaabe face is the “many small communities where there’s just one or two elders in some cases that still speak the language.”

Any language revitalization has to be at the invitation and the initiative of Indigenous people themselves, Scarboro Foreign Missions linguist Fr. Ron MacDonell said.

MacDonell has spent more than 20 years in the northern reaches of the Amazon basin helping the Makushi people defend and revitalize their language. With a radio station operating in Makushi and new books being published, the effort has been fairly successful. 

MacDonell does not doubt that the Church must help where it can.

“Pope Francis said very clearly (at the Synod for the Amazon) that the world has to listen to the wisdom of Indigenous peoples. Are we hearing what the Pope and what the synod has said?” he asks. “If you’re going to listen to the wisdom of the Indigenous peoples, isn’t it better to do it in their languages?”

MacDonell doesn’t see how a commitment to people can be separated from a commitment to their language and culture.

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