Bill C-91 An Act Respecting Indigenous Languages: More Hollow Reconciliation


There is no doubt that pre- and post-confederation governments in what is now known as Canada have developed policies, enacted laws and regulations, and engaged in practices that have had as their primary objectives: (1) to acquire First Nation lands and resources and (2) to reduce financial obligations acquired through treaties and other agreements with First Nations. Their primary methods have been to eliminate and/or assimilate “Indians”. Elimination took the forms of small pox blankets, scalping bounties, murders, starvation rations, and forced sterilizations. Attempts at forced assimilation took place in the form residential schools, forced adoptions (60’s scoop), and the Indian Act which outlawed certain cultural practices and created a legislative extinction date for First Nations. The impact of these laws, policies and practices have been nothing short of genocidal. The specific impact to First Nations languages have been devastating. The majority of the 70 different First Nation languages are at risk of extinction.

The federal government would have us all believe that have moved on from this so-called legacy of the past and have transitioned into a period of reconciliation. The former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in Parliament for the harms of residential schools:

Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.  These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, "to kill the Indian in the child".  Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. (PM Stephen Harper)

Yet, following this apology, the Conservative government made staggering funding cuts to First Nations and First Nation organizations; and reduced the funds available for First Nation languages. Harper’s empty apology meant that the majority of First Nation languages would continue to be at risk of extinction.

However, Harper’s decade of doom was followed by the welcome election promises of the current Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who promised to undo all the harms of the previous Harper government, including the repeal of legislation imposed on First Nations during Harper’s era. Trudeau also promised to implement all the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action and in particular, committed to legislate the formal recognition of Indigenous languages as an Aboriginal right and provide sufficient funding. Where he went wrong was in partnering with an Aboriginal organization - the Assembly of First Nations - to do this work, instead of working with the rights-holders: First Nations and their language experts. What has resulted is Bill C-91 An Act Respecting Indigenous Languages – legislation bountiful in flowery wording and empty on substantive rights. Not the best way to start off 2019 – the year of Indigenous Languages.

Bill C-91 was introduced and had its first reading by the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Pablo Rodriguez, on February 5, 2019. The bill went to second reading on February 20, 2019 and was referred to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on the same day. Therein lies the first problem – that this bill is sponsored by the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism and being studied by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. First Nation rights are not a matter of Canadian heritage or multi-culturalism. First Nations are not comparable to minorities or ethnic groups. First Nations are the original sovereign Nations of the territories on which Canada now sits with their nation-based laws, customs, practices, governments, economies, trading networks, and military alliances. Their status as sovereign Nations was undisputed and is the reason why treaties were signed. Nations only sign treaties with other Nations – not with subjects, citizens or cultural groups. First Nations were not then, nor are they now mere cultural groups.

Trudeau had promised to work together with First Nations on a Nation-to-Nation basis in a way that recognizes First Nation rights and work in partnership, instead of the usual paternalistic, top-down approach. Yet, Bill C-91 is exactly that – top-down legislation drafted with the advice of the AFN, but not the First Nation rights-holders themselves. Worse than that, the bill is not a recognition of the official status of First Nation language rights or a guaranteed minimum level of funding. It reads more like a carefully worded, overly broad, vague set of theoretical aspirations than any legal commitment one could enforce. Even the Indigenous Languages Commissioner as set out in the bill is appointed by, paid by, and can be removed by, Canada; with powers limited to research and advocacy. This is a real missed opportunity for Trudeau who could have worked with First Nations language experts and designed legislation to truly protect First Nation languages and take real steps to undo the devastation done by federal laws and policies.

Although there are many problems with the wording in every section of this bill, and there are many legal problems raised with said wording, I have five core concerns. First, there is no specific recognition of First Nation languages as official languages, nor is there a specific First Nation language right that is actually granted or recognized. The bill merely references rights “in relation to” Indigenous languages, but this could mean one’s personal right to speak a language versus the right to receive government services on one’s language, for example. Secondly, there is no specific recognition of First Nation jurisdiction or powers in relation to First Nation languages. The Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism retains all powers in relation to the bill and any future regulations.

My third concern is that there is no specific or firm commitment in relation to funding. The bill provides that the Minister will “establish measures to facilitate the provision” of funding. However, establishing “measures” is not a direct commitment for a specific funding amount or a commitment to whom this funding will flow. This relates to my fourth concern, that the bill promotes a pan-Aboriginal approach that is not First Nation-specific and appears to put other broadly-defined “Indigenous groups” on the same level as First Nations. Under this bill, funds could flow to anyone who incorporated an organization and claimed to be Indigenous – despite their lack of status as actual rights-holders within a specific First Nation territory.

Finally, this bill appears to utilize the same federally-controlled legislative framework concept for rights definition, limitation and scoping. Trudeau already had to back away from the federal rights recognition framework already rejected by numerous First Nations and First Nation organizations. Of particular concern is the federal government’s intention to establish a “framework” that is intended to define, limit and determine the scope of the language rights to be exercised, how and by whom, by way of negotiated agreements. While the AFN and the Metis National Council have come out in support of the bill, the Inuit Tapariit Kanatami have been very critical of it, explaining that they feel Canada acted in bad faith, that is not Inuit-specific, and does not protect Inuit language rights.

"The absence of any Inuit-specific content suggests this bill is yet another legislative initiative developed behind closed doors by a colonial system and then imposed on Inuit." (President Natan Obed)

It is important to remember that legislation is not legally required for the federal government to provide services in Indigenous languages or to provide funding to First Nations for Indigenous languages. One should always be weary of a government bearing gifts in the form of legislation, as it usually comes with federal control, provisions which limit First Nation rights, and can ultimately be amended or repealed at the will of government.

The TRC Calls to Action, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples all provide support for legal recognition and financial support for First Nation languages. That being said, for those First Nations who support federal legislation to enhance the political and legal commitment to First Nation languages, the key moving forward will be in the wording. To make this legislation more helpful than harmful, substantive amendments will be required. Given the speed at which Parliament is moving the study of this legislation, it is unlikely that the majority of First Nations, their representative organizations, and language experts will get their 10-minute opportunity to present to the Standing Committee on much-needed amendments.

Perhaps once the bill reaches the Senate, they will embrace their role as the “sober second thought” of government and slow down the process enough to hear from First Nation experts and consider meaningful amendments - assuming there still is a Liberal government after the SNC-Lavalin scandal. 

* Image is official United Nations logo for the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.

**A more detailed analysis to follow.


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