Debating language politics and preservation in Quebec is nothing new, but a big piece of the linguistic tapestry of the province and Canada as a whole is routinely left out of the conversation. Last year, the federal government’s Indigenous Languages Act acknowledged the place and importance of Indigenous languages and committed over $115-million to organizations across the country to promote and teach the many languages traditionally spoken and written in Indigenous communities. Though consultations about building on the act are ongoing at the federal level, to date most of the work has been left to the provinces and the organizations receiving funding — and over half of the funding has yet to be distributed.
Earlier this month, the city of Montreal announced a plan to support Indigenous communities, an initiative that includes cultural development and languages in the urban space. In an interview with CTV Montreal, Marie-Ève Bordeleau (the city’s Commissioner of Indigenous Relations) addressed the difficulty of promoting Indigenous languages in a community as diverse as Montreal — there are 35K Indigenous people in the city, and 11 Nations throughout Quebec. According to StatsCan, only 15.6% of Indigenous Canadians were capable of having a conversation in an Indigenous language in 2016, a drop of over 20 per cent since 2006.
One organization hard at work teaching Indigenous languages is Native Montreal, which also promotes cultures and offers health, educational and social services for Indigenous people in Montreal. There are typically 150 language students per semester, made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults, and exclusively Indigenous students in the children’s classes. While the city’s plan encourages such a “cross-cultural exchange,” having non-Indigenous people take part in the language and culture classes poses a challenge: some students are there to reclaim their culture, while others are merely curious tourists who aren’t always sensitive to the environment.
“Instead of coming for a language and being conscious of the space that they’re taking up, some of them just are acting as they would in any other class,” said Native Montreal director Philippe Meilleur in a CTV interview. “Our people are typically more timid than non-Indigenous people. Their learning style is different. It might be less forthright, more subtle. If their expectation is, ‘Oh, I’m going to go reclaim my culture, go learn the language of my grandfather or grandmother or both’ and then they show up and they have a loud person who’s not Indigenous taking up a lot of the space, I think that would turn off most people.”
As for the Indigenous Languages Act, Meilleur said that there’s still so much to be done, and public pressure needs to be applied at all levels of government to do more to preserve Indigenous languages.
“A couple of million dollars might sound like a notable amount, but it’s actually just a drop in the bucket to actually sustaining the existence of indigenous languages,” he said. “There’s so much that needs to be done. All the linguistics and development that needs to be done is huge.” ■
For more about Native Montreal, please visit their website.
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