Governments’ Efforts on Aboriginal Language Revitalization: Largely a Portrait of Inaction


Naiomi Metallic

*Assistant Professor, Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University and Chancellor’s Chair in Aboriginal Law and Policy


Building on Karen Drake’s excellent piece on the recently filed s. 35 Aboriginal language rights law suit—the first in Canadian history—I will provide a summary of my research undertaken for the book chapter I authored in the 3rd edition of Language Rights in Canada,[1] on the actions taken by different governments in Canada to promote and protect Aboriginal language.[2]  The portrait that emerges is a varied one, but overall it reveals much to be desired and underscores why resort to litigation is needed to force governments to do more.


Despite lobbying from the Assembly of First Nations since the 1970s, recommendations made in numerous reports, including by the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples,[3] and 2005 national task force report containing 25 specific recommendations on revitalizing Aboriginal languages,[4] there has been little done at the federal level.  There is nothing in the Indian Act,[5] the Official Languages Act,[6] or the Canadian Multiculturalism Act[7] that specifically references Aboriginal languages, nor any specific federal legislation on Aboriginal languages.[8]


When it comes to education on reserves, Canada provides some funding for Aboriginal language immersion programming but it is in tight competition with other programming.  Overall, funding for education on reserves is scarce and there is currently a complaint before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal alleging Canada’s funding for education on reserve is inadequate.[9]  Canada also dictates the content of curriculum on reserve and some have charged there is insufficient attention paid to language and culture.[10]


Canada’s only real dedicated program for Aboriginal language revitalization, the Aboriginal Language Initiatives (ALI) Program, which funds community-based language projects that First Nations and Aboriginal organizations can apply for, has been harshly criticized as being wholly inadequate to achieve the goal of revitalizing endangered languages.[11]


Moving to other governments, in the territories, where there is a high concentration of Aboriginal peoples, we find somewhat greater efforts.  In the Yukon, although the Languages Act only recognizes English and French as its official languages, the law specifically recognizes the Aboriginal languages in the Yukon and express a commitment to take measures to preserve, develop, and enhance those languages.[12]  However, the only substantive right recognized in the Act the right to speak an Aboriginal language in the Legislative Assembly.  The Act also provides that the government may pass regulations on rights to receiving government services in Aboriginal languages,[13] but this power has never been acted on.  Yukon’s Education Act, on the other hand, permits public school classes to be offered in an Aboriginal language if there is demand and resources permit.[14]


In the Northwest Territories, where nine Aboriginal languages hold official language status,[15] speakers are entitled to be provided services in their language from government offices where there is significant demand,[16] in addition to being able to speak their language in the Legislative Assembly and the courts.[17]  NWT also has an official language commissioner who has the duty to investigate any complaints about failure to respect these rights.[18]  Finally, public school classes can be provided in an Aboriginal language by decision of a school board if there is a significant demand within the district.[19]


Nunavut, by far, has been the most active government in terms of protecting an Aboriginal language, namely the Inuit language.  The Official Languages Act establishes Inuit and French and English as the official languages of the territory and permits Inuit to be spoken in the Legislative Assembly and the courts, and for the preparation of Inuit versions of draft legislation.[20]  There is also the Inuit Language Protection Act which specifically seeks to increase fluency in Inuit, both oral and written, within the population of Nunavut.[21]  It does so by requiring all public institutions post all their signs in all three official languages and all government and municipal offices and private businesses to provide services in all three official languages.[22]  Inuit is also an official language of employment within territorial government offices.[23]  Also, all parents within Nunavut have the right to have their children instructed in schools in Inuit.[24]  To protect all these rights, Nunavut appoints an official language commissioner with the power to investigate any violations of language rights in the province.[25]  Importantly, the government has created a fund to finance projects on Aboriginal languages.[26]


Outside of the territories, two provinces that have been relatively more active on Aboriginal language revitalization have been British Columbia and Manitoba.  Both have passed laws recognizing the importance of Aboriginal languages and their revitalization.[27]  BC’s law creates specific a fund to financing projects to promote Aboriginal languages and culture;[28] while Manitoba’s law does not, making the law’s impact primarily symbolic.


In Quebec, the Charter of French Language recognizes Aboriginal peoples’ right to preserve and develop their languages and exempts First Nations reserve from the application of French language requirement within their community.[29] The government also created a policy on supporting Aboriginal languages in 1989.  There is, however, little information about substantive supports for Aboriginal languages available in Quebec, except some provisions in the James Bay Agreement requiring provision of some services to Cree and Naskapi peoples by government authorities.


In most provinces, the only action being taken to promote Aboriginal languages are policies within education departments to permit instruction of Aboriginal languages in public schools, with no formal recognition of Aboriginal languages or the need for their revitalization in provincial laws or even policies.



[1] Les droits linguistiques au Canada (Édition Yvon Blais, 2013) (available in French only).

[2] This piece takes for granted that promoting and revitalizing Aboriginal Languages is important and that governments in Canada have a significant role to play in this regard.   Some of the reasons for this were canvassed in Karen Drake’s piece and, due to space constraints, I will not repeat these here.

[3] The RCAP report contained several recommendations on language, culture and education, including the establishment of a national language foundation: see Volume 3, “Gathering Strength”, pp. 579-590.

[4] See Towards the New Beginning‒A Foundational Report for a Strategy to Revitalize First Nations, Inuit and Métis Languages and Culture (2005).  The Task Force came up with several recommendations, including the creation of an institute for Aboriginal languages whose specific job would be to protect and promote their survival. However, with the change from a Liberal to a Conservative federal government in 2006, the recommendations in the report have not been acted on.

[5] Indian Act, RSC 1985, c I-5.

[6] Official Languages Act, RSC 1985, c 31 (4th Supp).

[7] Canadian Multiculturalism Act, RSC 1985, c 24 (4th Supp).

[8] In 2007, Senator Joyal introduced a Bill in the Senate called an Act for the Advancement of Aboriginal Languages of Canada to recognize and respect Aboriginal language rights (Bill S-237).  The Bill proposed to recognize the right of Aboriginal Peoples of Canada to use, preserve, revitalize and promote their languages and expressed the Government of Canada’s commitment to preserve, revitalize and promote Aboriginal languages in Canada.  Unfortunately, the Bill never made it past second reading.  Senator Joyal recently re-introduced the bill (S-212) in December 2015, which is now being debated at the Second Reading stage in the Senate.  Click here to read the Bill and follow its progress.

[9] Brought by the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation.  More information on the case can be found here.

[10] See 2005 task force report at pp. 66-67.  However, in Nova Scotia and British Columbia, following trilateral negotiations, legislation was passed giving greater control to First Nations to administer education programs and services on a reserve.  This includes the power to control the standards for language of instruction within the classroom.  See First Nations Jurisdiction over Education in British Columbia Act, SC 2006, c 10, First Nations Education Act, SBC 2007, c 40, Mi'kmaq Education Act, SC 1998, c 24 and Mi'kmaq Education Act, SNS 1998, c 17.

[11] According to the 2005 Task Force report, at p. 102.

[12] Languages Act, RSY 2002, c 133, s 1(3).

[13] Ibid at s 11.

[14] Education Act, RSY 2002, c 61, s 50.

[15] Official Languages Act, RSNWT 1988, c O-1.

[16] Ibid at s 11.

[17] Ibid at ss 6 and 9(2).

[18]  Ibid at ss 20-25.

[19] Education Act, SNWT 1995, c 28, s 71(4).

[20] Official Languages Act, SNu 2008, c 10, ss 3(1), 4, 7, 8.  Official laws do not have to be published in the Inuit language, however, all draft bills put before the Legislative Assembly must include a draft version in Inuktitut.  The government may also publish an official Inuktitut version of a statute at its discretion.

[21] Inuit Language Protection Act, SNu 2008, c 17.

[22] Ibid ss 1-7.

[23] Ibid s 12.

[24] Education Act, SNu 2008, c 15, s 23.

[25] Official Languages Act, supra note 19 at ss 16-36; Inuit Language Protection Act, supra note 20 at ss 27.1-30.

[26] Inuit Language Protection Act, ibid note 20 at s 25.1 and Official Languages Act, ibid note 19 at s 13.1.

[27] First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Act, RSBC 1996, c 147 and The Aboriginal Languages Recognition Act, CCSM c A1.5.

[28] The law creates a First Peoples Heritage, Language and Culture Council whose mandate is to administer funds for the purpose of financing projects to promote Aboriginal languages and culture.

[29] Charter of the French Language, CQLR c C-11, preamble and s 97.


*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the National Observatory on Language Rights.


This content has been updated on 22 September 2016 at 13 h 06 min.