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Peter Shawn Taylor: Some of Canada’s Indigenous languages can’t be saved and should be allowed to die natural deaths
There’s a growing expectation that Canadian taxpayers have an obligation to return to common usage every existing Indigenous language in the country.
https://www.therecord.com/opinion-story … al-deaths/
Opinion Feb 28, 2019 by Peter Shawn Taylor Waterloo Region Record
In 1881, Canadian governor general the Marquess of Lorne toured Western Canada and met with many Indigenous chiefs, who made many requests.
Dakota Chief Standing Buffalo asked "Please give me a Church on my Reserve for I want to live like the white people." Cree Chief John Smith had a similar plea. "I want a teacher … to learn the English language and to teach it to my children."
Today, of course, white culture and teaching English have become core components of the colonial "culture genocide" narrative that dominates Indigenous relations in 21st century Canada.
And as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, there's a growing expectation that Canadian taxpayers have an obligation to return to common usage every existing Indigenous language in the country.
Late last year, the House of Commons agreed to provide simultaneous translation of whatever Indigenous language a member of Parliament might wish to use. Then last month the federal Liberals promised to create a Commissioner of Indigenous Languages to "reclaim, revitalize, maintain and strengthen" all First Nations tongues.
Emboldened by this, some Indigenous activists are now demanding every Indigenous language be given official status equivalent to English and French, with attendant requirements for government services.
The final shoe to drop in this globally unprecedented quest to restore Indigenous languages will be the 2019 federal budget, and whatever it adds to the $85 million a year currently being spent on this mission.
Considering all the policy momentum, however, it's necessary to speak some uncomfortable truths. Most of Canada's extant Indigenous languages can't be saved — and should be allowed to die natural deaths.
According to UNESCO, Canada is home to 90 different Indigenous languages. Of these, nearly 80 per cent are categorized as vulnerable or endangered. The largest single category (32 individual languages) are "critically endangered," meaning they're spoken only by great-grandparents in remote locations. Munsee, for example, is used by less than 50 people, with an average age of 74, of the Delaware Nation at Moraviantown near Chatham-Kent.
Only a handful of languages, such as Cree, Ojibwa and Inuktitut, appear viable based on geography and usage.
The thought of so many heritage languages disappearing forever inevitably triggers a sentimental response. "We should care about dying languages for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet," Welsh linguist David Crystal writes.
But what might make sense on an emotional level doesn't necessarily translate into good public policy.
Crystal is a passionate defender of language protection, but his book "Language Death" serves up some hard realities. Based on global experience, he categorizes endangered languages into three stages, the last of which involves the loss of speaking abilities among successive younger generations. This is the stage at which most of Canada's Indigenous languages currently exist.
"The third stage is, for most languages, too late," Crystal states bluntly. By then the patient can't be saved. But no one seems bothered by this fact when it comes to spending money on Indigenous languages.
Don Drummond is one of the most respected voices of fiscal prudence in the country. He's a former associate deputy minister of the federal finance department, as well as former chief economist of TD Bank.
Recently, he's been working with the Assembly of First Nations to put a price tag on language revitalization. His figures say it will cost between $500 million and $1 billion a year. Forever. And he says it's "non-negotiable" that such a program target all languages equally.
When confronted with Crystal's predictions that it is nearly impossible to save any language past stage three, Drummond replies: "This is not just about a dried sense of economic benefits and cost, or whether there's going to be any success or not. We settlers provoked this decline [in Indigenous language] so I think there is some sort of obligation there."
Quite likely many other "settler" Canadians feel the same way. Indigenous language loss is our fault and so we'd better do something about it, whether it works or not.
Certainly, Canada's residential school system has much to answer for. But benefits and costs always matter in public policy — despite economist Drummond's curious dismissal of the concept.
Money spent promoting obscure and dying languages with no hope of revitalization is money that cannot be spent on other more pressing First Nation needs with far greater payoff. Like clean water. Or better education and health care. Or new economic opportunities.
Further, spending money to deliberately create linguistic differences between Indigenous communities and the rest of Canada can only widen the enormous gap that already exists between these two increasingly isolated solitudes. Reconciliation is impossible if we cease to speak to each other.
The point of language is to facilitate communication between large groups of people. Learning a new language may be cognitively and cultural stimulating, but that doesn't necessitate a billion-dollar a year taxpayer mandate destined to fail. Common sense should still count for something.
Finally, if it is inevitable that Canada spends huge sums on Indigenous languages simply to expiate white guilt, let us at least spend it on those with a fighting chance of survival. No amount of effort can save a language that's already been abandoned by its own people.
Peter Shawn Taylor is a contributing editor at Maclean's. He lives in Waterloo.
Last edited by sschkaak (Mar-01-2019 08:10:pm)