Indigenous Languages Act: Is it what we need?

February 5, 2019, the Indigenous Languages Act was tabled in the House of Commons for First Reading.  It was a promise by the Liberal Government to table the Act and to get it through before the end of June.  It has to go through this sitting as a Federal election will happen in October and if it doesn’t go through in June, it may never see the light of day.

On January 29th, 2019 at UNESCO, the launch of the United Nations International year of Indigenous Languages occurred so it is fitting that a week later the Federal Government tabled the Indigenous Languages Act. 

Our First Nation languages are foundational to who we are.  They are the key to our history, our culture, our protocols, and who we are as First Nations people.  A language is one of the elements that make you a Nation, the other three being people, territory and governance. The importance of our languages cannot be stressed enough.

B.C.’s languages make up more than 50% of the approximately 61 languages indigenous to this country. There are 34 First Nations languages within 7 distinct unrelated language families in BC. Some indigenous languages in Canada are almost extinct and others are thriving. The indigenous Languages Act was to ensure that our languages flourish and ensure none are lost.  The question to ask is, does the Indigenous language Act help our languages to flourish and will there be enough funding to do so as we have been hearing?

s. 5 sets out the purposes of the Indigenous Languages Act.  The two main purposes are to support and promote the use of indigenous languages and to support the efforts of indigenous peoples to reclaim, revitalize, maintain and strengthen indigenous languages.  

One thing people may want to make note of in purposes is 5(d).  That is to establish a FRAMEWORK to facilitate the effective exercise of the Rights of Indigenous peoples that relate to indigenous languages. This is exactly what the government was doing on the Recognition and Implementation of Rights Framework that many First Nations rejected, although BC First Nations accepted and wanted to work on this.  This Framework is only to do with Indigenous Languages so the government is working on its agenda in smaller pieces.  I would recommend that it is clear that Indigenous peoples be able to express in their way how they want their language used, revitalized, taught and not to have the federal government put in place a framework on how that is done.  That would be true self determination.

s. 6 recognizes that the rights within s. 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 include rights related to Indigenous languages.  What does rights related to indigenous languages actually mean? Either our right to our own language is a right, or it isn't.  What right would it be related to? Self Government.  This is a real insult to First Nations people who believe this is a right withihn s. 35.  After being deprived of using our language in residential school, this should never happen again but this section does not assure that.  

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Indigenous rights (UNDRIP) says "Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing suystems and literature, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons."

The Federal government has committed to implementing UNDRIP.BY stating that the right to our indigenous language is a RELATED to an indigenous rights does not honour this commitment.  As you read this analysis and the Indigenous Languages Act, keep this article in your mind as to whether this Act helps implement Article 13.


The preamble talks about the Federal Government commitment to implement the Universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights. (UNDRIP)  Implementing UNDRIP means obtaining the Free, Prior and Informed consent of indigenous peoples.  Yet in clause 7, it says the Minister must CONSULT with DIVERSE Indigenous governments, and other indigenous bodies and organizations, to meet the objective of providing adequate, sustainable and long term funding for the reclamation, revitalization, maintenance and strengthening of indigenous languages.  So the Minister can have “meaningful dialogue”, “engagements” or their process of consultation with indigenous peoples who may not agree with how much the Federal government is willing to fund indigenous languages and it would be ok, because they think they have CONSULTED.   This provision does not compel the federal government to consult with all First Nations or indigenous organizations but only a DIVERSE group. The legislation should be changed so that indigenous consent is obtained from all First Nations and indigenous groups regarding the level of funding in the short and long term.  

There is no need for agreement from indigenous peoples on funding levels and they may well need more based on their needs to save/revitalize their languages. Will there be sufficient moneys available for indigenous languages?  That is unknown as the final decision is the federal governments based on their budgets and available moneys. There is no guarantee there will sufficient funding available.  If this is what indigenous peoples want, and I am sure it is, there must be stronger provisions put in the Act that will achieve that.

Article 4 of UNDRIP talks about the right of Indigenous Peoples in exercising their right to self determination/autonomy/self government in matters related to their own internal affairs as well as the ways and means for financing their autonomous function. Article 5 goes on to talk about Indigenous peoples right to maintain and strengthen their distinct social and cultural institutions.  

Office of Commissioner of Indigenous Languages

The Indigenous Languages Act establishes the Office of Commission of Indigenous Languages. The act says this is not an agent or entity of the federal government nor are its employees part of the federal public administration.

But it is the Minister who recommends to the Cabinet, that makes the final decision on who the commissioner and directors are that will serve a five year term and any reappointments. Again, the Minister only has to consult with DIVERSE Indigenous governments and institutions in order to make the recommendation on appointments, removals or reappointments.  If a commissioner cannot act, the Minister can appoint one of the directors to take the Commissioners place.  It is the cabinet that decides on the salary of the Commissioner and Directors. The office must be in the National capital and if it is not, the cabinet must give approval of where it can be. The office of the Commissioner must provide a business plan and budget to the Minister and must follow the plan. They must also provide a report and audit to the Minister and the Minister must table the report in the House of Commons. Part of their report will be the adequacy of funding available for Indigenous Languages.

I would recommend if this Act was in compliance with UNDRIP, it would be an indigenous office, with officers appointed by indigenous people, and accountability to indigenous peoples. That would mean accountability to Chiefs, communities and other organizations.  The mandate and priorities of the office would come from Indigenous peoples, not through federal legislation. While the Act may say that it is not a federal entity or an agent of the federal government, the reality is that it a creature of federal statute that is governed by federal Law and its powers and accountabilities come from that act.  What I see, is if the Federal government is providing the funds, they want to structure the Office of Indigenous Languages the way they want.  It is not indigenous self-determination, nor is it a distinct social and cultural institution as required by UNDRIP.  The main control is with the federal government, not Indigenous peoples.  The legislation should allow for a distinct institution governed by indigenous peoples. Money received could be accountable to the government, but it should be spent in the way indigenous peoples want to spend it within their own institution.  

There is a length mandate for the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages as set out in s. 23-27.  Things like may help promote indigenous languages.  

(b) Office MAY support the efforts of indigenous peoples to reclaim, revitalize, maintain and strengthen indigenous languages.  I wonder what support that is. Is it financial-will that be in the budget of the Office? Is it political? Technical? Will it be like the BC First Nations Cultural Council who supports languages and provides funding.  The Act allows the Office to enter into agreements with Provinces and indigenous peoples regarding language so maybe this is how they would work out who does what and not duplicate services.  

(c) promote public awareness:  Educational role

(d) Help resolve disputes as set out in the act.

(e) support innovative projects and new technologies for use in indigenous languages education and revitalizations projects

s. 24: Do research on many different areas and  do community assessments

s. 25: Support indigenous governments/organizations as requested by them to do things like create permanent record of language, establish certification standards for translation and translation services.  The office is also to engage with the government of Canada and provinces to establish culturally appropriate methods of teaching and learning of the language.

Reading this I wonder, what is the role of First Nations individually or collectively in their language group?  There is no empowerment of First Nations to pass their own language laws though of course they can do it under their inherent ability to pass laws. Is the Commissioner.  There is no mention of what First Nations and other indigenous governments will play. 

s. 26 gives the Office of the Commissioner of Languages to provide services including mediation or other culturally appropriate service to  facilitate disputes between any party and the government of Canada including fnding provided by the government of Canada for indigenous languages.  There is nothing in the Act that the government provides money to indigenous governments with money for languages.  So this section needs to be clarified, or a section added that money shall be given out by the Government of Canada For indigenous Languages Or if it will that be the role of the Commissioner's Office. 

This central body seems to take over the role of certification, and they are to work with Federal and provincial governments to establish culturally appropriate methods of teaching and learning the language?  First Nations are the experts in culturally appropriate methods of teaching and learning the language.  What does the federal and provincial governments know about that and why should the office and the governments do this? How does this act give First Nation control over First Nation Languages?  It seems to give that kind of control to the officer of the commissioner. The Act must state clearly that First Nations have control over their languages, teaching methods, certification, etc.  First Nations know what needs to be done and they should be allowed to do so, not be subject to other body telling them how to do things.  

I never made it to the consultations on the language Act, (there was only one session in this area-so not extensive consultations at all) but it seems strange to me that indigenous people would want this type of structure and an institution that is empowered by the Federal Government with them having ultimate control.

The answer to saving our languages cannot be found in one body that is tasked with supporting languages all across Canada.  How will they provide funding to First Nations, Inuit and Metis people? Will it be proposal driven? Will there be money for individual First Nations or will the Office use it themselves to create tools or other mechanisms they think are important. This really needs to be clarified in the Act.

This legislation is not clear and does not have the answers I thought it would have. As this is the first time that many indigenous Nations and peoples will see the legislation, it is important for people to understand what the legislation does and does not do and it does not implement UNDRIP. They must be able to have input into making necessary changes.  

Apart from Article 13 in UNDRIP, I need to mention articles 14 and 16.  Article 14 states that we have the right to establish and control our educational suystem and institutions providing education in our own language, in a manner appropriate to our cultural method of teaching and learning. Some of this proposed Act does not fulfil those conditions.  Also Article 16 says that indigenous peoples have the right o estblish their own medeia in their own languages.  While the act should not provide for every possible thing, it should be clear that First Nations people have the jurisdiction and ownership over their language in every aspect.

As I reflect on that article and look at the Indigenous Languages Act, it falls short of Indigenous peoples ability to develop and transmit their languages if the Office of the Commissioners is doing all of that and there must be more clarity in the role of the Office and that it cannot override First Nations and other indigenous organizations.  

I appreciate the efforts in putting together the Indigenous Languages Act, but if we are to do something as vital as save, revitalize and have our languages flourish, it must be done by First Nations for First Nations and remove the role of the federal government.  Minister Bennett is always telling us they need to get out of the way of First Nation self determination, and this is one place they should do so.

Latest Opportunities

Associate Vice President, Indigenous Education and Engagement

Vancouver Island University
November 23, 2021

Executive Director

Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation
October 13, 2021

Entrepreneurship Program Coordinator

Kanaka Bar Indian Band
Kanaka Bar Indian Band
October 7, 2021