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Apology to Students of Indian Residential Schools - Representative of Aboriginal Community Received in Committee of the Whole

 

Senator Joyal: Welcome, Ms. Simon. Listening to your introductory remarks today, I think this chamber was well-founded in inviting you here, after a year of the progress and, I should say, non-progress that has been registered. I think that is why you have been invited today, to underline the success and to identify where we should concentrate our priorities.

I want to raise with you the issue of Aboriginal languages. On June 12 of last year, when you were in this chamber, you stated the following:

. . . in framing this new relationship with us based on the respect for who we are, our traditions, history, language and culture.

Today, you stated that reclaiming your language is part of reconciliation.

We have a bill on the Senate agenda under the initiative of senators, Bill S-237, which is entitled, An Act for the advancement of the aboriginal languages of Canada and to recognize and respect aboriginal language rights.

Can you explain to us why, in your opinion, it should be a priority for the Government of Canada and the Parliament of Canada to legislate in relation to the recognition and value of Aboriginal languages?

(1550)

Ms. Simon: Thank you very much, Senator Joyal. Our Aboriginal culture and language is the very basis of our existence as a people. Once you lose your language, your culture goes to a large degree. In Inuktitut, our language is tied to our surroundings, the environment and the living resources that we have depended on for thousands of years. It is a very descriptive language and without it, I think we would lose a large part of our identity. It is at the core of our very being.

It needs protection because we are losing it, despite the fact that we can still use it in some regions, in other regions it is almost gone. You can see a real decline in the use of the Inuit language. We are fearful that unless we get assistance in terms of protection and investment, we will lose our language in the long term. We are not a large group of people when you consider the numbers.

We have a commitment to ensure that we do not lose our language. However, when you look at it over decades, it has eroded to a substantial extent. We do not get any funding for Inuit language and preservation. In a recent speech that I made, I called on the Government of Canada to invest in our language. I called on the government to invest in our language to at least the same degree as the francophone language. There is no comparison in terms of the investment that is made for the francophone community in Nunavut versus the Inuktitut for the Inuit language. We are really encouraging the government to look at this very seriously.

I know that it is a big step forward to have the act put into place by the Nunavut government but we need more than that. We need the Government of Canada to help us move ahead on this issue.

Senator Joyal: Would you approve generally with the objectives and principles that are stated in the bill recognizing Aboriginal languages?

Ms. Simon: I have not read every article. Looking over at my two Inuit colleagues, I am looking for a positive sign. I think they both affirmed that, yes, this kind of bill is very welcome.

Senator Joyal: You mentioned in your statement — I will change the subject — that the Inuit from Nunatsiavut are not included in the agreement that was endorsed between Canada by the various Aboriginal leaders.

Could you explain to us why you think it is important for that group of Inuit to be included for reconciliation and indemnity at par with any other Aboriginal in Canada?

Ms. Simon: The students that went to those schools suffered in the same way as other students that went to residential schools. The sacrifices that the parents made to have their kids taken away to go to school and to try to get rid of their culture and their language is the same as other residential school victims.

In fact, in Labrador, I think that the damage in terms of the language has been great. I think they should legitimately be included in the work that we are doing to rectify this damage. They should be part of the reconciliation between the peoples of this country. Without them being included in the settlement agreement, they do not feel that they are part of this process at all. That is why I spoke on their behalf.

Senator Joyal: What is the main reason that they are excluded?

Ms. Simon: From what I understand, senator, it occurred before Newfoundland joined Confederation that some of these schools were set up and the Government of Canada was not responsible for those schools. The other reason that I have been told is that they were called "federal day schools" and not residential schools. In reality, they were residential schools. Even in my own territory, there are schools that were called "day schools" but they were residential schools.

Senator Joyal: Those Inuit have no other choice than to take the government to court if they want to seek indemnity and repair. That is the only option they have if they are not included in the general agreement that has been endorsed by all the other Aboriginal Inuit.

Ms. Simon: That is a decision that they are making as a region. My role as the national leader is to try to and find some common ground between the Government of Canada and the people of Nunatsiavut. I am hoping that, through discussions with various ministers, we can resolve this issue without having to go through the court system. That decision is not mine; it is the decision of the region.