Aboriginal language in decline, Stats Can says

Oct 25, 2012 | News

Total number of aboriginal languages spoken across Canada by mother tongue, spoken at home most often and spoken regularly at home. GRAPHIC BY SARAH MACDONALD

By Sarah MacDonald

Native leaders and experts said Thursday they were not surprised by news that the oldest languages in the country are slowly declining in use, but also said they believe the languages can survive.

According to a new report from Statistics Canada on Wednesday, the use of 60 aboriginal languages dropping across the country.

Those who consider an aboriginal language as their mother tongue have declined in use by 1.7 per cent since the 2006 census, Stéphanie Langlois, senior aboriginal statistical program analyst at Statistics Canada, told Humber News.

But this isn’t news to those in the aboriginal community and academics teaching aboriginal history and language.

“We kind of know it’s been decreasing,” said John Steckley, sociology professor at Humber College and Iroquoian language specialist.

“Programs have been accelerating but can they survive? That is the big question. It doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody. Some places have really, really active programs so they are going to survive.”

Shelley Charles, a native elder and manager of Aboriginal student services at Humber College who is a language speaker herself and participates the Lake Simcoe Language Revitalization Project, said she finds that funding for this kind of preservation initiative is lacking.

“There was all this money supposed available to have these projects, to preserve language, but it really isn’t that available to the individual or some groups.  I think that is one way we can work to make a change today,” Charles told Humber News.

Still despite the overall decline, languages like Ojibwa and Cree are still very prominent and thriving, according the census.

The variety of languages is an issue, said Steckley, since no one person can be an expert in all of them.

When languages are “shown respect” by government officials, Steckley said, there is a better chance of them surviving.

“Inuktitut is one of the official languages in Canada,” said Steckley. “It is probably our strongest aboriginal language.  It will survive because it is an official language.”

The report this time around was presented in a shorter form, a change since 2006. This time around it highlighted all of the languages whereas in the past it has not, said Langlois.

The question of preservation is still a vital issue, said observers.

“Our culture is a living culture and, while it has evolved, it is very old; it is the oldest culture and way of life in this country,” said Charles.

“The aboriginal languages themselves have a living history and carry oral tradition and stories from thousands of years,” she said.

According to the 2006 census, there were over 1 million Aboriginal people in Canada.

Of these only 20 per cent spoke an aboriginal language as their first language or something spoken regularly at home.