Ottawa should offer Indigenous-language training, exemptions to public servants, memo says

Easier to see from a service perspective in certain localities where numbers warrant but does pose significant operational challenges. The risk of an exemption, of course, is that it may provoke further requests for exemptions:

Senior civil servants explored offering Indigenous-language training to federal employees and possible exemptions to those who already speak one from requiring fluency in both English and French, newly released documents show.

Deputy ministers from several departments discussed the issue last fall.

A memo, released to The Canadian Press under federal access-to-information laws, flagged a “growing tension” between official-language requirements and Indigenous languages.

Under Canada’s Official Languages Act, federal institutions must offer working environments for employees to communicate in both French and English, and offer services to Canadians in either language.

As such, communicating in both is expected for senior executives and there are a number of public-service jobs where bilingualism is mandatory. There is room, however, for an employee to take classes and learn French or English as a second language.

The memo issued last fall said a working group was held about making changes to the official-language requirements. It said some Indigenous public servants belonging to a network of around 400 who work for the federal government asserted the need for a “blanket exemption.”

“My own personal view is there are opportunities for exemption – if the individual speaks an Indigenous language,” Gina Wilson, a deputy minister who champions the needs of federal Indigenous public servants, wrote in an e-mail to colleagues last November.

“Our GG [Governor-General] is a good example.”

Inuk leader Mary Simon’s appointment in 2021 sparked a discussion – and some controversy – over bilingualism in Canada’s highest offices, given how Ms. Simon, the first Indigenous person named as Governor-General, spoke English and Inuktitut, but not French.

Ms. Simon, who was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, said she attended a federal day school and wasn’t able to learn French.

She committed to doing so after her appointment and has been taking lessons, delivering some French remarks in public speeches.

Commissioner of official languages Raymond Théberge said more than 1,000 complaints about Ms. Simon’s lack of French were lodged with his office after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named her to the role.

Language training has been identified as one of the issues preventing Indigenous employees in the federal public service from advancing in their careers.

A report authored by public servants around the celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary recommended those who are Indigenous be exempt from official-language requirements and instead be provided with chances to learn the language of their community.

It’s unclear if Ottawa plans to move ahead on changes to language requirements, training or exemptions.

A spokeswoman for Crown-Indigenous-Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said both that ministry and Indigenous Services Canada “have no plans to offer departmentwide Indigenous language training,” noting employees have offered workshops in the past.

It said Indigenous employees are encouraged to talk to their managers about language training.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, an anglophone who speaks French and is learning Mohawk, said in an interview that the idea of an exemption is a sensitive issue.

“Inevitably, when you have to make one of those decisions, it is more often than not, and almost always, at the expense of jettisoning French,” said Mr. Miller, who represents a riding in Montreal.

“I don’t think that’s something that most people would find palatable … there are resources to learn it and I think there is the availability to do so.”

In their talks last fall, senior officials proposed ways to address concerns from Indigenous public servants about languages.

Ideas included providing more time to learn a second language and even offering Indigenous-language training, including to non-Indigenous public servants, as a show of reconciliation.

“I certainly recall during my French classes having this nagging thought in the back of my mind that I would be so much more open to this if I had the opportunity to be given training in my own Algonquin language,” Ms. Wilson wrote in her e-mail.

“I had a pretty good base in both, but of course my French is much better than my Algonquin now.”

Mr. Miller said he supports the idea of Ottawa providing classes, particularly to Indigenous public servants who were not provided the chance to learn these languages for themselves.

He said one challenge to doing so would be making sure Ottawa wasn’t taking language teachers away from communities.

“When you look at the fragility of Indigenous languages across the country, you would not want to be in a circumstance where we’re taking really valuable assets … people in many circumstances that are quite older, and just walking dictionaries out of their communities where communities are struggling to regain their languages.”

The same concern was highlighted by government officials. Both they and Mr. Miller said Ottawa faces calls to ensure it provides services to Inuit in Inuktitut.

“We could do better on that,” he said.

One change Lori Idlout, Nunavut’s federal member of Parliament, said should happen – and which officials also pitch in the memo – is for Ottawa to extend the $800 annual bonus it pays to employees who are bilingual to those who speak an Indigenous language.

The representative says she’s been approached by a union about federal employees in Nunavut who speak Inuktitut but are unable to access the compensation because they are not bilingual in French.

“Meanwhile, they’re providing valuable services to Inuit in Inuktitut,” she said. “It’s a huge issue.”

Ms. Idlout said Nunavut residents face many barriers when it comes to accessing federal services in general, including in Inuktitut.

According to the memo, officials recommend the government explore a pilot in Nunavut where jobs that require they speak Inuktitut “would not require competency in a second official language.”

Source: Ottawa should offer Indigenous-language training, exemptions to public servants, memo says

Senate adopts Indigenous Languages Act, with amendments

Will be interesting to follow implementation and impact:

The Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples has adopted an amended version of Bill C-91, the Indigenous Languages Act, with changes largely prompted by Inuit groups.

The legislation, introduced this past winter, would see the government establish an Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages, with a mandate to support and promote language revitalization efforts.

It would also give federal institutions the power to translate their own documents or offer interpretation.

“On the whole, the amendments passed strengthen the bill and better enable Indigenous peoples to reclaim, revitalize, maintain and strengthen their own languages,” said committee chair Senator Lillian Dyck on June 13.

“Of particular attention are a series of amendments that now include access to services and programs in Indigenous languages where there is sufficient demand and access.”

Dyck referred specifically to testimony by Inuit groups, who asked that the legislation ensure access to certain services, like education, health and justice, in Inuktut.

To that end, the committee passed an amendment that requires the minister of heritage and multiculturalism to review and report on the availability and quality of federal government services provided in Inuktut.

The committee also agreed to recognize the importance of Inuktut to Inuit Nunangat.

Though the legislation was touted as being co-developed alongside Indigenous groups, it received a cool reception from Inuit groups when it was tabled in February.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami chided the government for the absence of any Inuit-specific content; its president, Natan Obed, accused the government of “yet another legislative initiative developed behind closed doors by a colonial system.”

The national Inuit organization filed this submission last February, calling for certain amendments to the bill, including the development of a separate annex for Inuktut; recognition of Inuktut as an “original language of Canada,” and the negotiation of a separate funding agreement.

Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson credited the testimony of groups like ITK and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. over the last few months for re-shaping the legislation, though he said the process felt rushed.

“The government did pride itself on having worked hard to co-develop this legislation, but [for] the Inuit, was very clear to the committee that the process had fallen far short of fulfilling the government’s commitment to develop distinction-based legislation,” Patterson told the committee on June 13.

“I’m pleased that the committee agreed to recognize the importance of Inuktut to Inuit Nunangat, and appropriate funding levels based on a series of principles, including the use and vitality of a language and the objective of reclamation, revitalization, maintenance or strengthening of all Indigenous languages of Canada in an equitable manner.”

In a statement released June 14, ITK said it welcomed the Senate’s acknowledgement of some of its recommendations.

“It is regrettable that not all of the well-reasoned and thoughtful considerations put forward by Inuit were included by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples,” ITK said in a statement, calling on MPs to include all its recommendations before the bill’s final passage.

Bill C-91 will now go back to the House of Commons, where MPs will vote on the committee’s amendments and pass it into law.

Source: Senate adopts Indigenous Languages Act, with amendments

Celine Cooper: The future role of indigenous languages

The challenges are real given the diversity of languages and the population sizes:

At a speech to the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly back in December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government would be proposing a Canadian Indigenous Languages Act. While  they announced an allocation of around $90 million over the next three years to support communities seeking to revitalize indigenous languages in the 2017 budget, no actual legislation has been introduced as of yet.

Of course, there’s no denying that such legislation would be a logistical challenge. In Canada, there are more than 60 aboriginal languages, grouped into 12 distinct language families. About 20 per cent of those in Canada who report having an aboriginal mother tongue live in Quebec.

Would this mean Canada having 60 (or more) official languages? And if so, how would that mesh with existing policies and practices around French and English as Canada’s official languages? The reality is that different First Nations groups have been thinking about this for decades. One example can be found in a 2005 report titled Towards a New Beginning delivered to the minister of Canadian Heritage by the Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures. The authors concluded that while recognition of indigenous languages would be national, implementation could be regional.

Marc Miller’s Kanyen’kéha language speech to the House of Commons was a powerful symbolic gesture on behalf of the Liberal government. But keeping its promises to Canada’s indigenous peoples is going to take much more than words.

Source: Celine Cooper: The future role of indigenous languages

Constitutional challenge looks to revive aboriginal languages

While I understand and support the case for more initiatives for indigenous languages, the challenge remains to improve the overall educational outcomes for Indigenous Canadians:

The same section of the Constitution that enshrines First Nations treaties should, according to a growing number of legal experts and academics, also grant aboriginal people in Canada the right to schooling and public services in their ancestral languages.

“Unless we do something in this generation — the generation of my daughter — the languages will die,” says Lorena Fontaine, an assistant professor of indigenous studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Fontaine and Toronto lawyer David Leitch are preparing a constitutional challenge that argues aboriginal people have the right to be taught in their own, often endangered languages under Section 35 of the Constitution.

Section 35 guarantees aboriginal treaties, but has also been interpreted to protect customs, practices and traditions integral to aboriginal culture, which she says should include language.

“We have the right to use and develop these languages in institutions that we create,” says Fontaine, who is also a PhD student in history, peace and conflict studies and law at the University of Manitoba.

Leitch says aboriginal languages should be awarded “similar consideration” to French and English, which he says tend to dominate talk about language rights in Canada.

He would rather not have to take the case to court, and hopes the government will instead address the issue as it follows up on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“If you’re the prime minister of Canada you can do things pretty quickly,” says Leitch, adding that Justin Trudeau’s commitment to implementing the calls to action in the TRC report is a positive sign.

‘Fundamental and valued’

The TRC’s final report said the federal government has a responsibility to provide sufficient funds for aboriginal-language revitalization and preservation.

It also said aboriginal languages are a “fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society.”

Source: Constitutional challenge looks to revive aboriginal languages – Aboriginal – CBC