This site will look much better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.

Skip to Content

Speech - Indigenous Languages Bill

Hon. Serge Joyal: Honourable senators, it is an important day. I would even venture to say it’s a historical day.

When I was a kid, my mother was pregnant with my younger brother and she was always singing. One day I asked her, “Why are you singing all the time?” She said, “I am speaking to your future brother.”

It stayed in my mind that the first language you hear will determine your life. I thought it was so important when I realized that on my street, there were kids who were speaking English only. I wanted to play with them because I was the only boy on the street that was French Canadian.

I thought by learning the language, I would be able to connect and get out of my isolation as a kid. I went to school with the idea that when you have the opportunity to learn different languages, you discover another world. I will speak to you in English because I want you to realize what it is like when you are born in one language and, when you learn another one, how open you are to others.


As I learned the history of French Canadians, Champlain came to Canada and was welcomed by the Algonquin and the Huron. He learned their language. He had to, because he wanted to connect. He wanted to settle. He wanted to build a house. He wanted to stay. And he did stay. He died in Quebec City 30 years later. He became rooted in the country. Why? Because he was able to connect with the Aboriginal peoples. I learned that when I was a kid.

I also learned that, through the years, when new settlers didn’t need the support of the Aboriginal peoples anymore, with whom they had fought to push back the enemy in 1775, with whom they fought in 1812 to again push back the Americans, and when they expanded and became a big, thriving society and more numerous than the Aboriginal peoples, then they could impose their language on the Aboriginal peoples and push them to forget their language, forget who they were, to forget their roots and to forget the first songs they heard from their mothers.

I was wrestling, as an Indian. I went back in my papers and found photos of me dressed up as an Indian, when I was six or seven years old. I was then a fan of “Rin Tin Tin,” the “Lone Ranger,” “Zoro” and Roy Rogers. Among us, we had to decide who was the Indian and who was the cowboy. I always ventured to be the Indian because I liked to go naked —

Senator Mercer: Too much information.

Senator Joyal: — and put some makeup on, and whatnot, to dress like the other and to become the other. But I could not become the other, because I was trying to watch the TV and learn some words, to be like the Last of the Mohicans — how he was speaking. I was trying to imitate him.

Of course, when I tell you that, it sounds a bit ridiculous. But I realized that if, one day, I would have the opportunity to do something specific to make sure that those others would reappropriate their identity instead of me trying to appropriate their identity, I felt it would be the right thing to do.

When I had the privilege to chair the repatriation of the Constitution, with the help of Senator Patterson and other Inuit people, we had the opportunity to put something in the Constitution to recognize that. But you will understand that, 40 years ago, this was like speaking in the air. Nobody would think or understand what we were trying to do one day.

We put section 22 in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 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.

I tell you, honourable senators, it was about Aboriginal languages that I had in my head when they put this here.

When I became Secretary of State years later, I met with Senator Patterson. I offered him and Clément Chartier, the chief of the Metis people: “Let’s sit together and do something to start supporting and helping Aboriginal peoples to define for themselves who they are,” even though, as Senator Richards has said, it’s such a long way to go.

We are on the path of reconciliation to try to rebuild 150 years of assimilation, directly or directly. It won’t happen overnight; we can’t do that overnight. It’s impossible. For you as an individual to try to change your own personal habits, look how difficult it is. When we, as a country, try to reverse the course of assimilation, it cannot happen overnight.

We will all strive individually to do something, but we sat together and found a way to do it.

I’m happy to see senators that have introduced the amendment that allowed the government to sign agreements with the various nations and with the Nunavut government, to give way to the aspiration of the Inuit people in relation to the capacity to come back and be proud to speak their language.

That’s why in this chamber, honourable senators, in 2006, I, along with Senator Charlie Watt and Senator Willie Adams, initiated the experience of allowing Inuit to speak their language on this floor. Even though we would do it only a couple of times, it was the principle. Yes, it is possible to do it when there is a will. You all know politics: When there is a will, there is a way.

Honourable senators, this is such a historical day.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

Senator Joyal: I would like to thank Senator Harder, and Senators Sinclair and Dyck, because what we’re doing today will have an everlasting impact on the future of this country. We will never be the same, honourable senators.

Thank you.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!