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The Walrus: Beyond Bilingualism

May 31, 2018 — 

As The Walrus reports: 

“It’s shocking to me how many Canadians don’t know the meaning of the name Canada, the name Manitoba, the name Winnipeg,” says Niigaan Sinclair, a professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. (He is also a member of this magazine’s educational review committee.) When it comes to place names, “it means we have an illiterate citizenry.”

“Two things have to happen in the act,” Sinclair says. His father, Senator Murray Sinclair, chaired the TRC, the final report of which called for the creation of the act. “First, Indigenous languages must be recognized as founding languages of the country—all of them. And second, there have to be the resources and support to ensure these languages carry on into the future. Without these two things, reconciliation is impossible.”

When Sinclair says “all of them,” he means it. Some people have quietly wondered if the passage of an Indigenous-languages act might lead to a sort of language triage, whereby widely spoken tongues, such as Ojibwe, receive a healthy infusion of funds but languages with few speakers are merely documented for posterity, no serious effort being made to revive them. In British Columbia, according to the 2016 census, 8,435 people spoke an Indigenous language as their mother tongue. This total was split among almost fifty languages (not just dialects), many of them near death’s door. Only one, Carrier, still had a thousand mother-tongue speakers. Yet Sinclair dismisses the notion of language triage: “That’s so disrespectful—it’s [a] violent idea. There’s nothing more colonizing than defeatism.”

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