More than 1,000 Indigenous language experts and activists from 20 countries around the world have gathered at a three-day summit in Victoria, B.C. to explore ways to bring attention to Indigenous languages.
The conference, titled "Let the Languages Live", focuses on advancing global efforts to revive endangered Indigenous languages at a time that, according to UNESCO, many of them are on the brink of extinction.
Tracey Herbert, CEO of summit cohost First People’s Cultural Council, a Victoria-based First Nations-run Crown Corporation supporting the revitalization of Indigenous languages, warns that Indigenous languages and heritage are “at risk” and that we “must act now to ensure they are preserved and thrive into the future”.
“Indigenous languages matter because Indigenous people matter. Language is essential for all people to understand who they are, where they come from—their histories, culture, and values,” Herbert said at the conference. “Indigenous languages are part of our unique shared heritage in B.C. and Canada, but all are at risk.”
UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural organization, declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, aiming to draw attention to their restoration.
UNESCO’s secretary general of its Canadian Commission, Sébastien Goupil, called for a global effort to maintain and revitalize Indigenous languages, adding that “we cannot let the entire burden be placed on the individual nations and communities.”
“We know how languages and the concepts, teachings, and wisdom they carry are essential to the cultural security and well-being of Indigenous peoples across the globe,” Goupil said at the conference. “Protecting, maintaining, and revitalizing these precious languages are a fundamental right and an absolute necessity.”
The federal government, meanwhile, has reiterated its commitment to reviving “endangered” Indigenous languages and culture in Canada.
Canadian Heritage and Multiculturism Minister Pablo Rodriguez said that the government will continue to undertake “actions to support Indigenous people in their effort to reclaim, revitalize, maintain, and strengthen their languages”.
“Language is a vital part of our culture. It defines who we are, our identity and our place in the world,” Rodriguez said. “By declaring 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, UNESCO is shining a light on the fragile state of this living heritage. Today, most of the Indigenous languages spoken in Canada are endangered.”
On June 21, the Indigenous Languages Act came into force after receiving royal assent from the Governor General.
According to the federal government website, “the Act is a concrete response to the urgent need for action to prevent the erosion and even extinction of Canada’s Indigenous languages.”
In its 2019 budget, the federal government also included an investment of over $333.7 million over five years and another $115.7 million annually thereafter to support the implementation of the Indigenous Languages Act.
The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), released early this month, also called on all levels of governments in Canada to acknowledge Indigenous peoples' right to their languages and culture.
The report recommended meaningful steps should be taken in restoring Indigenous languages and recognizing them as official languages with the same status and protection as French and English.
According to the 2016 census, there are more than 260,000 speakers of more than 70 Indigenous languages in Canada.
Many Indigenous languages in Canada are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people.
UNESCO has identified three-quarters of Canada’s 90 living Indigenous languages as "endangered".
Around the world, too, Indigenous languages continue to disappear at an alarming rate, UNESCO says.
Data by UNESCO shows that 43 percent of the 6,700 languages spoken globally are “facing threats to their vitality”.
The disappearance of these Indigenous languages, in return, put their belonging cultures at risk.
UNESCO cautions about the current state of Indigenous languages across the globe and calls for urgent action to “preserve, revitalize, promote, and mobilize national and international actions to protect them”.