Indigenous languages: The road ahead

Posted on September 5, 2023

An Algonquin version of this post is also available.

It’s safe to say that one’s identity is a combination of one’s language and one’s culture. A person’s language provides them with a direct link to the history of their people and an understanding of their ancestors. It also illuminates the path for future generations.

Canada is a country that enjoys linguistic and cultural pluralism. Our history, the building blocks of the nation we are today, is founded on the first languages that were here for tens of thousands of years: Indigenous languages. Once flourishing from coast to coast to coast, Indigenous languages have been significantly eroded and now number about 70.Note 1 All Indigenous languages, including my mother tongue of Algonquin, are in various stages of endangerment according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). As I do my best to enhance my own Anishinabemowin, my heart aches each time I am reminded that the number of Algonquin speakers continues to wane.

My language as well as all other Indigenous languages have been severely negatively impacted by government actions founded on policies of assimilation. Essentially, these actions created rapid language displacement, the phenomenon whereby a language or languages are displaced by another language that gains dominance. Indigenous languages have been increasingly displaced and replaced by English and French, both of which are statutorily protected and well funded.

Today, we see a similar scenario playing out in another context. Much like Indigenous languages have been displaced, there is now a recognized threat of displacement of the French language. Indeed, the government is currently moving forward with amendments to the Official Languages Act to modernize and strengthen it (Bill C-13) in a manner that further protects and promotes the French language by recognizing its status as a minority language in Canada and North America.

As public servants, we are entrusted with the responsibility of protecting languages, whether through the Official Languages Act or most recently through the Indigenous Languages Act. This starts with understanding that all languages can exist and thrive in a single environment, at the same time. That environment could be in society as a whole, in geographic locations, or within the public service.

As public servants, we are bound to very specific requirements of the Official Languages Act. These provisions include how we conduct ourselves internally as well as when dealing with the public. Internally, we have organizational structure mechanisms in place that ensure that all public servants can use the official language of their choice. When dealing with the public, we communicate and provide service in the official language of choice, where there is significant demand for the language (as defined by the criteria set out in the Official Languages Act).

But as I said, we live in a country of many languages, and we proudly strive to serve the public in a manner that provides the best experience possible. This means then that we must look at official languages bilingualism not as an end, but as a beginning.

We are not prohibited from engaging in practices beyond the requirements of the Official Languages Act that recognize the importance of other languages and, in turn, help to strengthen them. Sensible approaches to language preservation are within our means and authorities.

For example, it may surprise some to know that in Nunavut, the majority of the population speaks Inuktitut as their mother tongue. In my opinion, it would stand to reason that, as a public service that delivers programs and services in that region, we would do so in a manner designed for the people who live there, that is, in Inuktitut. Such changes would mean prioritizing Indigenous languages in certain federal workplaces while maintaining our statutory official languages obligations.

I don’t see this matter as an either-or proposition. I believe we can protect English, French and Indigenous languages at the same time.

This post was written as part of the Golden Quill initiative, which gives senior management within the federal public service the opportunity to write about an aspect of official languages that is important to them or to share their own personal experiences with language. Check out The Golden Quill: An initiative of the Our Languages blog (opens in new tab) to learn more about this annual tradition and to read blog posts written by past recipients of the Golden Quill.


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Gina Wilson

Gina Wilson

Gina Wilson

Gina Wilson has been Deputy Minister, Indigenous Services Canada, since July 2022. In 2017, she was appointed Deputy Minister, Women and Gender Equality (WAGE), where she spearheaded the creation of the new department, ensured that Gender-based Analysis Plus was fully instituted in government and served as the first chair of the federal Indigenous Women’s Circle. She has also served as Deputy Minister at Public Safety Canada, and Associate Deputy Minister at both Employment and Social Development Canada, and Canadian Heritage.

Gina Wilson is a strong community-focussed professional with a bachelor's degree in social sciences from the University of Ottawa. She has extensive experience in the areas of social justice and safety, leadership, policy analysis, strategic planning, research and Indigenous relations.

Gina received the 2020 Indspire Award for her leadership, her support for Indigenous employees and her lifelong work on Indigenous issues.


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Submitted by Krista Schwabl on September 5, 2023, at 15:03

I agree! If Truth and Reconciliation is to go beyond the buzzword phase, the First Peoples of Canada need support in revitalizing their language, culture, and traditions. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and perspective.

Submitted by Meredith Webb on September 6, 2023, at 12:18

Agree 100% - it should never be either or, it should be ALL!

Submitted by Cathy Brothers on September 6, 2023, at 16:05

I love the strong, clear, respectful message of Gina Wilson. Impossible to fathom the misguided beliefs and values leading to current inequitable status among people and their languages. Gina gives us hope that we can and must do better.

Submitted by Leanore Langford on September 6, 2023, at 20:20

Thank you. I would like to hear the indigenous languages spoken and encouraged in gatherings. I feel like the person is singing when the languages are spoken.

Submitted by Frankie Berland on September 8, 2023, at 11:00

I whole heartedly agree with DM Wilson!! As a federal public servant, an Executive, and a fluent Cree speaker whereby Cree was my first language: speaking the language enhances your connection to people and cultures. I believe, as human beings, we are wired to grow and develop and this includes appreciating, supporting each other, and communicating with each other so that we knock down those barriers collectively so that together, we make our communities, our country a better place to co-exist!!

Submitted by Be McClint on September 14, 2023, at 11:23

The NRC has various projects using technology to protect Indigenous languages. The main one is the Canadian Indigenous Languages Technology Project and it includes, for example, Speech generation for Indigenous language education - National Research Council Canada.
"Our latest project, still in the research stage, is machine translation for English to Inuktitut and vice versa." Fact sheet: Indigenous languages technology project" - National Research Council Canada.

Submitted by Laila Beam on September 15, 2023, at 17:14

I whole heartly agree with Gina Wilson. In the past I see that Indigenous Peoples should have been at many tables participating in the importance of Languages. Today and in the future I would like to see Language requirements not being a barrier for Indigenous peoples to sit at many tables so we can participate more fully in these important conversations.

Submitted by Henry A Kudluk on September 20, 2023, at 15:14

There should be equitable funding for Indigenous languages as there is for the French Language.

Submitted by Lisa Fleming on September 25, 2023, at 12:57

Thank you DM Wilson. When young children have the opportunity to sit and learn from Language Keepers, everyone wins. We must strategize with Elders and Language Keepers on how to create these important opportunities. The investment of time with children, will encourage indigenous languages to flourish.

Submitted by stella margaret klosowicz on September 30, 2023, at 11:50

I find questions as informative as answers- I hope to study Law and Education in the context of current elementary schools on reserves- with respect to Indigenous children- how will they be affected by the new English language ON govt document this year and what supports are out there?

Submitted by Geordie Nelson on October 26, 2023, at 0:02

I stumbled across this blog and actually only realized recently that there is now an Indigenous Languages Act. I am very happy to see this as it is such a clear step towards the Calls to Action in language revitalization, and well past due for this to be implemented. I recently did the Explore program which was a blast. I think this is a much better way to support the French language. I agree with you that it's not one or the other but both/all and I have been interested in learning nehiyawak/Cree. I would love to see an Official Languages Explore-like program, but where Canadians of all backgrounds could learn an indigenous language in immersion integrated with principles of reconciliation and a land ethic. That would be cool.