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Looking Back on the International Year of Indigenous Languages

17 December 2019

The Honourable Melanie Mark, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training, Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, speaking at the Canadian Commission for UNESCO's Annual General Meeting in June 2018.

This blog post was written by Sébastien Goupil, Secretary-General of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.

2019 is drawing to a close, and with it ends the International Year of Indigenous Languages. It’s a good moment to reflect on what we’ve done and look to the future, and as such we want to reflect back on our efforts to advance the spirit of this important year with our members, our networks, and our partners.

Why did the UN dedicate a year to Indigenous languages?

It’s worth recalling at the outset that international years and decades are powerful mechanisms for cooperation that the UN uses to draw the attention of decision-makers and the general public to complex issues that require greater awareness and concrete commitments. The International Year of Indigenous Languages was an opportunity to shine a spotlight on rights already recognized in article 13 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The creation of the International Year of Indigenous Languages is not exactly a cause for celebration; it’s more of a call to action – urgent action. Above all, it testifies to the difficulty, the unwillingness or inability of states and institutions to undertake proactive and ambitious legislative, political, and program actions to halt the eradication and marginalization of Indigenous languages and cultures around the world.

In Canada, the racist and colonialist policies that were put in place – in particular the residential school system – are responsible for the situation we have today. In an article titled Indigenous Languages: A Fundamental Right to Defend, the kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) activist Ellen Gabriel refers to a cultural genocide, as did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She reminds us that residential schools used “cultural shaming as a psychological weapon to prevent Indigenous children from speaking their mother tongue.” We now understand that the loss of language and culture – the foundations of identity – has caused serious multigenerational harm that continues to have devastating and visible consequences.

All is not lost, though. Across the country, First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are working tirelessly to maintain, preserve, and revitalize their languages. Despite many challenges and a serious lack of resources, communities are working to develop fluent language-speakers and create resources that reflect their cultures and value systems, and preserve languages for future generations.

Civil society: An essential ally to promote the spirit of the International Year

To advance these efforts, civil society needs to play a supporting role in being well informed and in helping create favourable conditions for Indigenous languages to flourish. This shared responsibility is central to furthering reconciliation efforts.

At the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, our mandate confers on us an obligation and a moral authority to mobilize and work with a large array of partners to defend and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples. This includes the right to enjoy the benefits and safety that come with mastering one’s language and culture.

Since 2018, we’ve committed to actively supporting the goals of the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Our commitment, which has taken many forms, is supported by a number of partners in order to expand the movement to support the protection, maintenance, and revitalization of Indigenous languages.

Awareness-raising efforts

We have, for example, organized a symposium on Indigenous languages, in order to build a sense of responsibility among our members and networks, and to invite them to become powerful allies. We wanted above all to help make heard the voices of our Indigenous partners, and to let them know that we are standing with them. This includes helping our partners educate diverse publics about what they can and must do to support the work that is underway in Indigenous nations and communities.

To mark the 11th anniversary of UNDRIP, we worked with Professor Onowa McIvor to publish a reference sheet on Indigenous languages. This publication raises awareness of concrete steps that everyone can take to actively contribute to language revitalization efforts. The University of Victoria had the excellent idea to develop an animated version to help spread this message.

Steps can also be taken through awareness of the languages, histories, cultures, and realities of Indigenous peoples in Canada. And this is exactly the objective of the Let’s Talk about Reconciliation initiative that we launched in collaboration with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Library and Archives Canada, the National Film Board, and Wapikoni Mobile. Thanks to a partnership with the Indigenous Matters Committee at the Canadian Federation of Library Associations, dialogue sessions convened around screenings of films by Indigenous filmmakers continue to be organized across the country.

Our networks, such as Biosphere Reserves and UNESCO Global Geoparks, have also been put to work. The series of reflection papers and videos called Reconciliation in Action eloquently demonstrate the important role that these designated sites can play in Canada and abroad. To these efforts, we’ve added two awareness-building campaigns that have enabled us to reach thousands of people through our social media networks and those of our partners. Another project is underway to help non-Indigenous people in Canada better understand the challenges related to the maintenance and revitalization of Indigenous languages. The project will also provide a guide to greetings and responses in the languages of various traditional territories. 

Sharing tools and best practices

Beyond integrating matters concerning Indigenous languages, cultures, and traditional knowledge into each of our sectors of activity, we have supported a wide array of initiatives, including information-sharing and promoting best practices for the revitalization and maintenance of Indigenous languages – one of the major priorities of the International Year.

We supported the HELISET TŦE SḰÁL (“Let the Languages Live”) international conference, organized by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council in British Columbia to bring together learners and language keepers from across the globe. We provided support to the Nikanite First Nations Centre colloquium, and will soon publish its key conclusions. We are providing assistance for the upcoming symposium on Indigenous languages organized by Wapikoni and RICAA (International Network for Indigenous Audiovisual Creation). This project will provide space to reflect on the role of film and media arts in the promotion, preservation, and revitalization of languages.

Other initiatives deserve to be mentioned. For example, our Commission partnered with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and many others to welcome the first North American Dialogue on Biocultural Diversity. The meeting put a spotlight on the links between biological, cultural and linguistic dimensions of diversity, and how these have an impact on resource management and decision-making processes.

In recognition of the invaluable contribution of documentary heritage towards building awareness and educating people, our Canada Memory of the World Register is also put to contribution. This register highlights collections that have exceptional value for our country, and has been enriched by important inscriptions that have a link with Indigenous languages, including the archives of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the Ida Halpern Fonds of the Royal BC Museum, and the early books in Indigenous languages (1556-1900) that have been preserved at the National Library and Archives of Quebec. A number of other proposed inscriptions are currently being studied.

The critical place of Indigenous languages and cultures is also reflected in many other initiatives and publications that we launched in 2019. For example, we published Spoken from the Heart – Indigenous Radio in Canada, with Indigenous Culture and Media Innovations. This original research examines the current situation of Indigenous radio in Canada and explores the critical steps needed to maintain a vibrant ecosystem to support revitalization efforts. A guide titled Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples – A Holistic Approach was developed to support the work of the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities. We believe that local governments have a critical role to play in reconciliation, including by helping mainstream Indigenous languages in the urban environment and fostering their use.

Efforts that need to continue in the coming years

We’re proud of the efforts that the Commission has made to advance the major principles put forward by the United Nations and UNESCO in the context of the International Year of Indigenous Languages. We know that these efforts must not come to an end in 2019. This is why we are committed to continuing our work and requiring our members and partners to also lead by example.

We are already thrilled by the work underway to ask the United Nations to declare an International Decade for Indigenous Languages. This decade is essential to implement concrete actions and mobilize the necessary financial investments for the preservation and revitalization of languages and cultures.

We know that languages and cultures are essential to the flourishing and well-being of Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world. They are just as essential to ensuring a sustainable future for all humanity.

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