TRC Call to Action #14 – Indigenous Languages

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Brian Giesbrecht

The TRC calls upon the government to make the teaching of Indigenous languages in public schools a priority.

No one would disagree with the idea of having more Indigenous people become familiar with their ancestral languages. Many Canadians want their children to learn their ethnic languages. Parents with Scottish roots might want their children to learn Gaelic to help instil ethnic pride in the child, or for many other equally valid reasons. It is not surprising that many Indigenous parents feel the same way.

However, there are many practical reasons why the public school system is not the place in which to do this. One is that there are so many different languages that would have to be accommodated. Canada is a very multicultural  country. In Japan, it could be assumed that all students share an ethnic identity, but in our country, the Scottish-Canadian child would share a classroom with children from a multitude of other ethnic groups. In fact, the chances are good that the Scottish-Canadian child is also Mennonite-Canadian, Irish-Canadian and Indigenous-Canadian. The fact is that most of us are a mish-mash of cultures, religions, races and ethnic identities in this multicultural country.

Therefore, the use of public schools to teach ethnic languages is problematic. It is something better done by parents and ethnic associations. This has been something long recognized in this country.

In the case of the teaching of Indigenous languages, things are further complicated by the fact that there are at least sixty distinct Indigenous languages in Canada. The practical problems of trying to design a practical way of teaching all of these different languages in public schools would be insurmountable.

Even in a First Nation community that shares only one ancestral language there are good reasons why the limited resources available in the public school system should not be diverted to the teaching of ancestral languages. Plainly put, Indigenous children need all the help they can get in the basics, such as English, Math and science. Since records have been kept, Indigenous children have lagged far behind the mainstream in academic achievement. This profoundly influences their ability to get a job when (if) they graduate. It would be a mistake to divert the limited resources in the public school system to something of such limited value as fluency in an ancestral language. Emphasis should be on providing a solid grounding in the basics.

Even if fluency in an Indigenous language is achieved by a few, problems remain. In the first place, it would be difficult to maintain that fluency, because so few people still  speak those languages. But even if that obstacle was overcome, what would actually be achieved by the learning of the language?

The fact is that those languages are about as relevant today as is Latin. The ancestral Indigenous languages had their origin – and worked very well for thousands of years – in a subsistence hunting and gathering lifestyle that is now a thing of the past. They simply don’t work in the modern world.

They have no words for “computer”, “airplane” and the like because those inventions were not part of their world. The dozens of words they may have had to describe different snow conditions to people on the hunt are of of relevance to a tiny, and diminishing audience today.

Fluency in an ancestral language might be very valuable to that child and family for personal reasons, but even if it is achieved, it would not help the child reach that modern future. And if fluency is achieved at the expense of gaining a good education, it would actually be a negative.

Pride in one’s culture is a good thing. We should all know where we come from, and feel good about it. However, the public school system is not the best vehicle to look for the instilling of that pride. Parents, community groups and ethnic associations are better sources.

The government should commit to providing the best possible education for all Canadian children, with a particular effort to close the gap that exists between Indigenous children and the mainstream. Again, the teaching of ancestral languages should be something best done by parents, community groups, and ethnic associations.