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First Nations Languages Strategy

On January 1, 2019, the United Nations (UN) launched the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde ad- dressed the UN Assembly urging Ca nadians and all parliamentarians to support the revitalization, reclama- tion, and protection of First Nations languages in Canada. The Indige- nous Languages Act is expected to be tabled soon in Parliament, and MF- NERC has been a prominent voice in protesting the disappearance of First Nations languages. Violet Okemaw, Director of Research and Develop- ment, is an Ojibwe language speaker who is working with other organiza- tion representatives on language re- tention in the province.

“Indigenous languages are in a cri- sis,” she said. “In 1999, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs did a province- wide survey that found it was young

adults around 30–35 that spoke the language. Now, in most communi- ties, it’s the people in the range of 55–60. This is the last generation that still speaks the language. There’s been a big loss of language speakers in our communities.”

In 2015, Okemaw was a key figure in forming the Manitoba Aboriginal Language Strategy (MALS), a partnership designed to promote First Nations language retention in Manitoba. This partnership is made up of four organizations, including the Indigenous Languages of Manitoba (Melanie Kennedy), Indigenous In- clusion Directorate/Manitoba Edu- cation and Training (Helen Robin- son-Settee), Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre Inc. (Violet Okemaw), and University College of the North (Esther Sander- son).

Since forming the partnership in- 2015, the lead representatives haven held regular discussions, and Inclusion 2017, the partners signed an agree-y Education with a commitment to work together to develop Education indepth partnership for language retention and development. “We’ve formed an- Indigenous research group that has as its goals, five priorities,” said Oke maw.

The partners’ five priority areas include:

 • a partnership protocol, with a strategy and working groups to keep our languages alive;

 • an in-place system for sharing re– sources and expertise;

• a communication strategy to promote First Nations languages in communities, schools, families, and various audiences; and,

• more fluent speakers/teachers teaching language in classroom and other places and places of learning

Ultimately, the primary purpose of MALS is to ensure the interconnectedness of the newly established working groups and to collaborate, strategize and share and plan on First Nations languages and cultural programming and resources.

“Within the First Nation languages and Culture Program, language facilitators go out to schools and provide language support to classroom teachers/instructors,” added Okemaw. “A second approach is the Manitoba Aboriginal Language Strategy which involves directly, the three other organizations as partners.”

For years, First Nations have sound- ed alarms at the trend of disappear- ing First Nations languages in Can- ada. Canada doesn’t have a federal First Nations languages act, and this would be the first step toward cre- ating measures for their protection and promotion. The development of a languages law was initially an- nounced in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 mandate letter to the heritage minister.

The expected law will also support the Truth and Reconciliation Com- mission’s calls to action and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indig- enous Peoples.

First Nations leaders have been pressing the Prime Minister to follow through on his commitments to First Nations people. At the UN Assembly, National Chief Bellegarde said: “Indigenous languages are the founding languages of this land, embracing our identity, our worldview, and our nationhood. But in Canada, no Indigenous language is safe. Now, there is hope. The Indigenous Languages Act that we co-developed will help ensure our languages survive and thrive. Canada will be a stronger, richer country when we hear First Nations children and families speaking their languages.”

“What better way to mark the International Year of Indigenous Languages than to pass a bill that was developed with us to protect, promote, and revitalize our languages?” Bellegarde shared with the Assem- bly.

Bellegarde added, “We need legislation to ensure sufficient, sustainable and long-term funding toward the revitalization of our languages. We need schools on-reserve as well as in urban and rural settings to create and implement effective bilingual and immersion education programs beginning with pre-school age children.

And we need programs that inspire all of our people to speak our languages, regardless of age, to renew the vibrancy of our Inclusion as our cultural places. We want our languages to be our living languages—sourced from our lands, expressing our creation stories, and alive in our ceremonies and daily lives.”

By James Wastasecoot