‘These languages are endangered’: Expert weighs in on Indigenous Languages Day

With more than 70 Indigenous languages spoken across Canada, recognizing March 31 as National Indigenous Languages Day highlights the need to better preserve these languages so they aren’t lost, according to one expert.

“I think people should be aware that these languages only come from Canada. They’re the first ones spoken here,” said Lorena Fontaine, the Indigenous studies department head at the University of Manitoba. “It’s important to highlight that these languages are endangered.”

Fontaine said in the current education system, students are learning English and French at the expense of their own ancestral languages.

“The school systems are continuing to erase and essentially kill our languages by not allowing children to have access to them in school,” she said.

As of now, there are few schools that offer immersion programs and language classes. Fontaine said the University of Manitoba is working on developing a Bachelor of Arts degree for those interested in learning the languages.

However, she also said there is a critical shortage of Indigenous language teachers in Manitoba.

“The majority of the teachers we have right now are over the age of 65 and the children are not accessing the language at home because of the damage of the residential schools,” Fontaine said. “So second language learners, adults and youth that are interested in learning the language, really have to make an effort for them to potentially go into teaching.

“We need teaching training programs for Indigenous languages in order to save them.”

Fontaine said she hopes that by marking Indigenous Languages Day, it will spark discussion around some of these issues.

“It’s important to celebrate the importance and beauty of Indigenous languages in Canada,” she said. “I hope it makes people curious to find out more about the status of Indigenous languages and also the fact that they’re so interconnected to the landscape of the country.”

Premier Wab Kinew released a statement in Anishinaabemowin on Sunday to honour Indigenous Languages Day, saying he is “filled with joy” that Indigenous languages continue to be looked after.

“If we come from places like Winnipeg, Lake Minnewasta, the Assiniboine River, Odanah Colony, Manitoba or Canada, to name but a few, we are people who use Indigenous languages,” he said. “And so it is that our youth will be healthy if they continue to speak the languages of the Anishinaabemowin, Dakota, Cree, Anisininew, Métis, Inuit and Dene peoples.”

Fontaine said having an Ojibway speaking premier in office paves the way for potential legislation that will help preserve Indigenous languages and heritage.

“I think there is a great opportunity to develop legislation in Manitoba that would recognize Indigenous peoples right to be educated in their ancestral language in the same way that people can access French and English education,” she said. “It’s time that we have fully funded immersion programs in Indigenous languages.”



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