Constitutional Challenge Looks to Revive Aboriginal Languages


April 10, 2016 – The same section of the Constitution that enshrines First Nations treaties should, according to a growing number of legal experts and academics, also grant aboriginal people in Canada the right to schooling and public services in their ancestral languages.

“Unless we do something in this generation — the generation of my daughter — the languages will die,” says Lorena Fontaine, an assistant professor of indigenous studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Fontaine and Toronto lawyer David Leitch are preparing a constitutional challenge that argues aboriginal people have the right to be taught in their own, often endangered languages under Section 35 of the Constitution.

Section 35 guarantees aboriginal treaties, but has also been interpreted to protect customs, practices and traditions integral to aboriginal culture, which she says should include language.

“We have the right to use and develop these languages in institutions that we create,” says Fontaine, who is also a PhD student in history, peace and conflict studies and law at the University of Manitoba.

Leitch says aboriginal languages should be awarded “similar consideration” to French and English, which he says tend to dominate talk about language rights in Canada.

He would rather not have to take the case to court, and hopes the government will instead address the issue as it follows up on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“If you're the prime minister of Canada you can do things pretty quickly,” says Leitch, adding that Justin Trudeau's commitment to implementing the calls to action in the TRC report is a positive sign.

‘Fundamental and valued'

The TRC's final report said the federal government has a responsibility to provide sufficient funds for aboriginal-language revitalization and preservation.

It also said aboriginal languages are a “fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society.”

It's estimated that there were once about 200 aboriginal languages spoken across North America. According to the 2011 census, there are currently 63 spoken in Canada and most are expected to become extinct by the end of this century.

Only three are likely to survive — Ojibwe, Cree and Inuktitut.

“Language is everything that we are,” says Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who happens to be Lorena Fontaine's uncle.

“If you don't know your language, then it is difficult to understand in a profound way who you are.”

$2.6B on education

The Fontaines and Leitch were among 70 scholars, lawyers and activists who gathered at Glendon College of Toronto's York University in February to draft a declaration demanding the federal government recognize aboriginal language rights and fully commit to the TRC's recommendations.

They plan to send it to politicians and academics across the country in the coming months.

READ FULL ARTICLE:Constitutional Challenge Looks To Revive Aboriginal Languages“. N. p., 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

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