The head of the Assembly of First Nations is calling for the nearly 60 indigenous languages spoken in Canada to be declared official along with English and French, an expensive proposition but one that he says is becoming more urgent as the mother tongues of aboriginal peoples disappear.

Perry Bellegarde, who was elected National Chief of the AFN last fall, agrees it would not be easy to require translations of all indigenous languages to be printed on the sides of cereal boxes and milk cartons.

“That would be the ultimate goal,” Mr. Bellegarde said in an interview on Wednesday at the three-day annual general meeting of the AFN, Canada’s largest indigenous organization. “But let’s do small steps to get there.”

As a start, he said, the federal government should draft legislation that would set aside the financial resources needed to promote, protect and enhance Canada’s aboriginal languages, some of which are now spoken by only a handful of elders and could be gone in five to seven years.

During a session on aboriginal language preservation at the AFN meeting, chiefs and other delegates debated a resolution calling on the federal government to provide money that would begin the work of revitalization. Without putting a dollar figure on it, they agreed it would be costly.

The federal funds should be used for things such as an indigenous language institute, language programs and immersion at aboriginal schools, Mr. Bellegarde said, adding that he has raised the issue with all federal leaders as they prepare for an election in the fall.

“Because of the residential schools, there has basically been a killing of the languages in Canada, and our languages should be looked upon as national jewels, national treasures,” Mr. Bellegarde said. “There’s nowhere else in the world that you will hear Mohawk or Cree or Dene being spoken.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which spent seven years examining the legacy of the schools, released an interim report last month that recommended the creation of an aboriginal languages act to make the federal government financially responsible for preservation.

The TRC also recommended that postsecondary institutions create degree and diploma programs in the languages of the First Nations, the Métis and the Inuit. And that is starting to happen.

This fall, the University of Saskatchewan will offer its first certification for teachers of Cree and will eventually branch out to other indigenous languages. Michelle Prytula, the dean of the university’s college of education, said she was moved by the words of an elder who said the residential schools were responsible for the assault on indigenous languages but that schools also have the power to revitalize them.

The 2011 census found more than 60 aboriginal languages grouped into 12 distinct families. The most common are the Algonquin languages, which include Cree, Ojibwa, Mi’kmaq and Innu. At the current levels of funding, Mr. Bellegarde said, studies have shown that just three languages have a chance of surviving. “That’s a travesty.”

First nations elders say language explains the way their people view the world. For instance, in Mohawk, the word for mother is the same as the word for a mother’s sisters, because parenting is done by the collective.

And the Cree word for school – kiskinwahamatowikamik – means “a place we go to cry.”

Marie Wilson, one of the TRC commissioners, said she heard over and over again that the loss of language was one of the most devastating results of the residential school system. One of the former students of the schools, she told the chiefs, said “they took my language, they took it right out of my mouth, I never spoke it again.”

Language is the key to culture and identity, Ms. Wilson said. “We live in a country that understands that perfectly well.”

It is part of what is required for self-determination, Mr. Bellegarde said. And to have aboriginal languages on the verge of extinction, he said, “is not acceptable and it’s not right.”

MONTREAL — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jul. 08, 2015 7:57PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Jul. 08, 2015 11:49PM EDT