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Preserving Linguistic Diversity: The Significance of International Mother Language Day in Revitalizing Indigenous Languages in Canada

This article focuses on International Mother Language Day (IMLD) and its significance within the Canadian context, particularly in relation to the revitalization of Indigenous languages. The article explores the origins of IMLD, highlights the challenges faced by Indigenous languages in Canada, examines the historical injustices and their impact on language decline, and discusses recent legislative developments and initiatives aimed at language preservation and revitalization. Additionally, it draws parallels between the goals of IMLD and Indigenous language revitalization, emphasizes the importance of intergenerational transmission, institutional support, and technological innovations in language preservation efforts, and underscores the need for collaboration and awareness to maintain linguistic diversity in Canada. The article explores how celebrating linguistic diversity and prioritizing language revitalization can contribute to sustainable development goals and reconciliation efforts in Canada while preserving cultural heritage.

International Mother Language Day (IMLD), a global commemoration of linguistic and cultural diversity, emphasizes the worldwide importance of preserving and revitalizing the first language. Within Canada, IMLD takes on added significance as the nation grapples with the challenges of revitalizing Indigenous languages, reconciling a complex history, and connecting to the Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022-32. 

Observed annually on February 21st, IMLD traces its origin back to the Bengali Language Movement in Bangladesh when students in Dhaka organized a large protest rally for the recognition of Bengali as one of the official languages of Pakistan. The commitment and sacrifices of many, including 29 individuals who lost their lives during the protests underscore the deep connection between language, search for identity, and human rights. In 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed February 21st as International Mother Language Day (IMLD) with the purpose of not only promoting linguistic and cultural diversity but also encouraging the use of mother languages to preserve cultural heritage and foster tolerance. The day served as a global platform for celebrating linguistic diversity and raising awareness about the importance of mother languages in maintaining cultural vitality. The 2024 IMLD focus on Multilingual education – a necessity to transform education provides a framework for discussions, initiatives, and events that will hopefully contribute to the broader goals of embedding language preservation and revitalization in general educational efforts.

In the 2022 Census over 200,000 individuals reported one of the Indigenous languages as their mother tongue with an equal number reporting speaking their mother language at home regularly. The same year Census recorded over 70+ Indigenous languages, grouped in 12 language families spoken across the country, each with its unique grammatical structures, vocabulary, and cultural significance. “The three of them (the Cree languages, Inuktitut and Ojibway) accounted for almost two-thirds of the population... The ten most often reported Indigenous languages accounted for almost 90% of the population having an Indigenous mother tongue.”

The Canadian waste network of Indigenous languages reflects the diverse cultures and histories of the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. However, as it is also widely known it was considerably impacted by the arrival of European settlers and their policies of assimilation, mandatory residential schools, and various kinds of cultural suppression aiming to eradicate Indigenous culture and languages and replace them with English or French. The devastating consequences of these policies resulting in a sharp decline in the use and fluency of Indigenous languages, led many of them to the brink of extinction. In addition, the lingering effects of the intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities in Canada resulting from the combined effect of colonization, loss of land, language and culture continues to affect Indigenous communities today. The well-being and resilience of any cultural community, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, suffer tremendously when willful and intentional erosion of cultural identity, knowledge systems, and traditions is taking place.

In recent years, there has been some acknowledgment of the historical injustices faced by Indigenous communities in Canada. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (2007) calls to action 13-17 highlighted the importance of preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages as a fundamental aspect of reconciliation, recognizing them as a “fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them” with the federal government having “a responsibility to provide sufficient funds for language revitalization and preservation.” This is important because language as a universal cultural identity tool does not represent only the means of communication but, in oral cultures especially, serves as a repository of traditional knowledge, a spiritual connection to the land, and an instrument of well-being. In that context, revitalizing language, a crucial step in reclaiming cultural heritage and strengthening intergenerational community bonds, is also seen as a tool of Indigenous resilience, self-determination, and self-governance.

The next significant legislative development, the Indigenous Languages Act, which received Royal Assent in 2019, recognized explicitly that “a history of discriminatory government policies and practices, in respect of, among other things, assimilation, forced relocation, the Sixties Scoop, and residential schools, was detrimental to Indigenous languages and contributed significantly to the erosion of those languages.” The act also established the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages, created with “an overarching purpose to help promote Indigenous languages and support the efforts of Indigenous peoples to reclaim, revitalize, strengthen, and maintain their languages”.

There are several reasons why the principles of IMLD align very closely with the goals of Indigenous language revitalization in Canada:

  • Both the IMLD and Indigenous language revitalization emphasize the celebration of linguistic diversity, the recognition of the cultural significance of languages, and the promotion of multilingualism as a means of enriching societal cohesion.

  • While IMLD provides a platform for raising awareness about the unique linguistic challenges faced by Indigenous communities in Canada, it also contributes to broader discussions on the revitalization of Indigenous languages.

  • Finally, the global nature of IMLD creates opportunities for Indigenous communities in Canada to connect with international initiatives focused on worldwide language preservation and revitalization. Collaborative efforts, knowledge exchange, and shared resources can strengthen the collective impact of these endeavors.

Although “newcomer communities” in Canada, the language communities of speakers of languages other than the official, French and English, might be seen as a part of the “settler-colonial” culture, they are in fact experiencing some similarities with respect to the permanent language and culture loss upon arrival. In fact, in Canada in large numbers, mother languages are in steep decline generation after generation. “Many arrive here not realizing they are likely to be the last generation in their family to speak their language”. From the funding perspective, despite the initial strong federal support for multilingualism in the 1970s and 1980s, research shows that this support eventually ended with the government explicitly excluding languages from its definition of multiculturalism as a sign that some cultures and languages are more critical to Canada than others. Yet, many agree that “it’s not possible to have multiculturalism without multilingualism” and imperfect solutions are not a problem as long as we have a shared understanding of the root cause.

However, our task as a Coalition is to ask difficult questions and connect people interested in finding solutions to complex problems. The purpose of our events is questioning, connecting, and providing opportunities for dialogue. We also recognize challenges that are shared by Indigenous communities and newcomer communities alike concerning language preservation:

  • We need to respect the logic of intergenerational transmission: One of the primary challenges in Indigenous language revitalization is ensuring intergenerational transmission due to the oral nature of many Indigenous languages. Efforts must address the gap between fluent speakers, often elders, and younger generations, who may face barriers such as limited access to language resources and immersion opportunities. In newcomer communities too, elders are an important motivational force for preservation of the culture and need to be involved in all efforts.

  • We need to request institutional support: Revitalization and preservation need sustained support from governmental bodies, educational institutions, and community organizations, including adequate funding and curriculum integration. For Indigenous languages in particular, incorporation into official documents is seen as one of the crucial steps in creating an environment conducive to language preservation.

  • We need to leverage technological innovations: Embracing technological innovations can enhance language revitalization and preservation efforts, and create a bridge for connecting to younger generations. Digital platforms, language learning apps, and online resources can provide accessible and engaging tools for language learners, inclusive of connecting Indigenous with newcomer communities.

In conclusion, first, International Mother Language Day serves as a poignant reminder of the intrinsic link between language, culture, and identity. In the Canadian context, the day resonates deeply with the ongoing efforts to revitalize Indigenous languages, acknowledging the historical injustices and charting a course toward reconciliation. By celebrating the linguistic diversity of all languages contributing to Canada's economic growth, raising awareness, and fostering collaborations, Canada will be able to contribute Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global dialogue on language preservation, and ensure that the rich tapestry of Indigenous languages remains as vibrant and as much an integral part of the nation's cultural heritage.

Next, as Indigenous language revitalization efforts are often community-driven, with a focus on reclaiming, revitalizing, and transmitting languages within the community, the elders, language champions, and educational institutions representing newcomers' languages too can learn, share, and collaborate to develop programs and resources that support mutual language learning and fluency.

Finally, as the journey of Indigenous language revitalization continues, the principles embodied in International Mother Language Day might provide opportunities for those connections while emphasizing the profound impact of language on shaping the narratives of the past, present, and future.

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