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Aboriginal Languages of Canada Bill - Second Reading—Debate Adjourned

Hon. Serge Joyal moved second reading of Bill S-237, An Act for the advancement of the aboriginal languages of Canada and to recognize and respect aboriginal language rights.

He said: Honourable senators, I would like to remind you that this bill is entitled an Act for the advancement of the Aboriginal languages of Canada and to recognize and respect Aboriginal language rights.

The first thing I did before introducing this bill in the chamber was to send the proposed draft to our Aboriginal senators. Many have replied to me in writing expressing their comments in support of the bill; others have done so orally, also expressing their support and comments on the bill.

I also took the initiative of sending the draft bill to the representatives of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Métis National Council, the Mohawk council, the secretariat of the Inuit of Labrador and Quebec, and other Aboriginal groups that have a professional interest in Aboriginal languages. I took that initiative before a non-Aboriginal senator took the initiative to table such a bill.

I must inform honourable senators that the above-mentioned groups have all expressed their support in principle of this bill, would like to see it debated and eventually adopted by Parliament.

Before I move on with the substance of the bill, I should like to remind honourable senators that this bill calls on us to reflect upon the history of our country. The first barrier the European settlers encountered when they landed in Canada in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the language barrier. The settlers spoke French or English and they had to learn how to communicate with the Aboriginal people. They did not enter the country as conquerors; they entered the country as settlers. They did not want to impose their presence with the strength of arms; they wanted to negotiate their settlement. That is what Jacques Cartier did when he landed in Gaspé. That is what Champlain did when he landed in Acadia. They did not go to those locations with thousands of armed soldiers; they came to Canada in good faith to try to settle the land. Soon, the language barrier became the first obstacle to their purpose. What did they have to do? The Aboriginal people were much too proud to try to learn the newcomers' language and the settlers had to learn the Aboriginal languages in order to communicate with them. They did not teach the Aboriginal people English or French.


The reverse at that time was the rule. The missionaries were best equipped to learn Aboriginal languages.

The first grammar dictionary was composed — my colleague Senator Nolin will remember that dictionary from his early days in school — by Father Jean de Brébeuf. He was the first person to draft the dictionary and grammar in Huron. The Huron were tribes occupying the site of Quebec with the Algonquin. The Minister of Colonies in France soon complained that the Aboriginal people were not learning French but rather it was the other way around with the French learning Aboriginal languages. The Aboriginal people were in the dominant position of controlling the natural resources that the French settlers wanted to exploit. The settlers were, in a way, at the mercy of the Aboriginal peoples to learn their languages. That relationship lasted for more than two centuries.

The Aboriginal people were so much in control that in 1700, when the French government wanted to sign peace treaties with all the Aboriginal groups in Canada at that time, the governor of Montreal sent five missionaries, five Jesuits — each one of them was fluent in one of the Aboriginal languages, be it Iroquois, Abénakis, Algonquin or Huron — as interpreters and diplomats because they were able to speak the languages of those nations.

When they all convened in Montreal, in August 1701, they all spoke Aboriginal languages. None of the negotiations took place in French. Everything took place in Aboriginal languages. When they signed the treaty, they did not sign their names in French. They signed their names with the pictogram that was the identification mark of the tribes: the mouse, the wolf, the squirrel, the moose, the bear and the wild rabbit. If honourable senators look at the old treaties, it is not their name that appears but rather a design, a drawing of all those signs. It is clear that for 200 years, the only way to conduct business in Canada, to buy fur from the Indian nations of Western Canada and Upper Lakes Canada, was to speak their language.

It is only when the economy of Canada turned at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the fur trade collapsed and wood became the main resource of Canada, that the balance changed because the wood had to be cut, The settlers, not the Aboriginal people, were cutting and exploiting the wood.

In other words, when the Canadians of the nineteenth century did not need to deal with the Aboriginal peoples to profit from the land, from the natural resources, they stopped learning Aboriginal languages and the balance tipped, so much so that an act was adopted in 1857 by the Legislative Assembly of the United Provinces of Canada. As honourable senators will remember, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec were united into one Parliament. It was called the Parliament of the United Provinces of Canada. In June 1857, they adopted an act to try to assimilate the Aboriginal people and thus have them lose or forget their languages.

The title of that act is: "An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in this Province, and to Amend the Laws Respecting Indians." Remember this was in 1857. The first "whereas" of the bill states the following:

whereas, it is desirable to encourage the progress of Civilization among, the Indian Tribes in this Province, and the gradual removal of all legal distinctions between them and Her Majesty's other Canadian Subjects. . .

Later in the bill, honourable senators, a commissioner was appointed:

. . . such Commissioners shall report in writing to the Governor that any such Indian of the male sex, and not under twenty-one years of age, is able to speak, read and write either the english or the french language readily and well, and is sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education and is of good moral character and free from debt, then it shall be competent to the Governor to cause notice to be given in the Official Gazette of this Province, that such Indian is enfranchised under this Act; . . . .

It was an incentive for the Indian population to abandon their original Aboriginal language and turn to French or English to benefit from the act that was adopted, that is, all the benefits of land ownership.

When Confederation was passed in 1867 and Indians became the responsibility of the federal government, there was the Indian Act. Honourable senators will remember what we learned and what we heard when we had the representatives of the Aboriginal people in this chamber two years ago following the official apology for the government policy of residential schools. At that time we learned and heard that one of the main objectives of the residential school policy was to remove the "Indianness" in the Indian. What is "Indianness:" It is language and culture.

Young Aboriginal children were taken from their families and communities, moved 100 kilometres from their home and forced to abandon their own mother tongue in the context of punishment and hardship under the new regime of learning French or English. It is stunning to read the testimony of those Aboriginal peoples of Canada from that time. Let me share information from someone who testified during the hearing related to residential schools. One student says he was forced to kneel in a corner of the classroom as punishment for having spoken Ojibway. Another student says his mouth was washed out with soap every time he spoke his language. That punishment was essentially what the policy was all about. It was deliberate government policy to eliminate the distinction of being Aboriginal. We all know — we have heard about it in this room — how moving it is to listen to how that policy is a direct cause of abandonment by the Indian people of their Aboriginal languages.

We heard one of the national chiefs mention that there were 55 Aboriginal languages in Canada, and only three survived: Inuktitut spoken by our Senator Watt, Cree and Ojibway. The other 52 are more or less extinct for the simple reason that the language is not transmitted from mother to child through the generations. Aboriginal people have lost the basic knowledge of their own language.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was established by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The Erasmus-Dussault Royal commission, report in 1996 concluded with the following:

Language is one of the main instruments for transmitting culture from one generation to another. Its revitalization, according to the Commission, is the key to renewal for the First Nations, Inuit and Metis and for their culture."

Honourable senators, there is no doubt, and I am quoting Professor Leitch:

"Aboriginal languages are incontrovertibly located at the core of 'Indianness."'


Those who speak French have mastered French and the heritage that the culture conveys from one nation to another. Those who are English speaking have mastered English and the culture that supports and makes the language thrive. Those who are Indian, who do not speak the language of their nation, cannot express their lore, their religion, their sentiments, or their convictions. Instead, they must express in the language of another, which does not relate to their deeply rooted identity.

Two years ago in this chamber, we heard Chief Phil Fontaine reply to the government apology. He said:

We are seeking fair treatment. It would be a tragedy if even one indigenous language were to disappear from here, but we are faced with 52 indigenous languages disappearing. We face a huge disaster and we need to do something to fix the situation.

Honourable senators, I am not speaking to a bill introduced out of the blue. Rather, this bill is the result of two main sources of study. The first one is the Taskforce on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures established by the federal government and reported in June 2005. The report resulting from the study is entitled Towards a New Beginning: A Foundational Report for a Strategy to Revitalize First Nation, Inuit and Metis Languages and Cultures. The report recommends:

That Canada enact legislation that recognizes, protects and promotes First Nation, Inuit and Metis languages as the First Languages of Canada. This legislation, to be developed in partnership with First Nation, Inuit and Metis peoples, must recognize the constitutional status of our languages; affirm their place as one of the foundations of First Nation, Inuit and Metis nationhood; . . .

Aboriginal peoples participated in the drafting of the report under the sponsorship of Canadian Heritage. They quote a deep-felt conviction that something must be done to give status to their languages.

Honourable senators, the First Nation prepared a draft bill that was tabled at the National First Nation Assembly meeting in Halifax in July 2007. It was entitled, the National First Nation Languages Strategy and First Nation Languages and Foundation Act. Being a bill, it would fall under the framework of the Senate's capacity to introduce bills. As honourable senators on both sides know, senators may not introduce legislation that has a financial impact. That rule might seem complex to some of our new senators, but it is easy to understand. This house cannot initiate legislation that would compel the government to spend money. Such bills may be introduced only in the other place.

Bill S-237 does not compel the government to spend money. Rather, it serves as an incentive for the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development to promote and recognize Aboriginal languages. Clause 6 of this bill makes that clear. Bill S-237 gives effect to the recognition that Aboriginal languages are part of the heritage languages of Canada. Some honourable senators who recall the debate on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1981 will recognize section 22 of the Charter, which states:

Nothing in sections 16 to 20 abrogates or derogates from any legal or customary right or privilege acquired or enjoyed either before or after the coming into force of this Charter with respect to any language that is not English or French.

In plain language, it means that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not affect customary rights to speak languages other than French and English that might have existed before the Charter was adopted. It is quite clear that the Aboriginal languages were spoken in Canada before the European settlement and the development that ensued. They have status and are part of the heritage languages that contribute to Canada's diversity.

I commend Bill S-237 to the attention of Honourable senators. All Aboriginal senators received a copy of the bill some months ago, and many have answered in writing with comments and suggestions with support in principle. All national Aboriginal groups have received copies of the bill and would like to see it studied and debated before the proper committee in due time. As a minority Canadian francophone, I understand what it means when one cannot speak his or her own language in the context of our diverse Canadian society.


I truly believe that it is an extremely important aspect of Canada's nature that we recognize the status of Aboriginal languages and that, in our laws, we acknowledge the value and the importance that Canada places on the native presence, the status of Aboriginal peoples and the fact that Aboriginal languages contribute to Canadian diversity and form part of our identity.