Expert says Indigenous language preservation in NWT critical to protecting culture and identity

We Love Our Languages Symposium in Yellowknife
(photo courtesy of Chris Coomber)

The preservation of Indigenous languages in the Northwest Territories is absolutely critical to protecting Indigenous culture and identity.

That message rang loud and clear on Tuesday in Yellowknife as a three-day Indigenous languages and education symposium got underway at the Explorer Hotel.

It’s the first event of its kind ever held in the NWT and comes at the tail end of Indigenous Languages Month across Canada.

The United Nations has also declared 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages.

About 80 Indigenous language advocates from communities across the territory and B.C. were invited to the event to discuss ideas and practices that will help preserve the NWT’s nine official Indigenous languages.

Dr. Angela James is the director of Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat for the territorial government’s Department of Education Culture and Employment (ECE).

She is also one of the event organizers.

“We are here because we love our languages. That’s the theme of the symposium. But we are also here to celebrate Indigenous languages. We’ve brought people together who are advocates and champions and educators and leaders of Indigenous languages,” James said. “We’re also here to discuss the four-year NWT Indigenous Languages Action Plan. This (symposium) is one of 17 actions that is taking good, strong, bold steps.”

The keynote speaker on Tuesday was Dr. Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams who is a professor emerita at the University of Victoria.

She is also a former director of the Aboriginal Enhancements Branch of the B.C. Government.

Wanosts’a7 Williams says preserving language is critical to protecting Indigenous culture and identity.

“My message today is to work together and listen to each other and learn from each other to work on the language and culture,” Wanosts’a7 Williams said “What we are really reconciling is how, through colonial practices, our languages and cultures were removed from the people and from the land. We’re bringing those back into existence and use.”

Wanosts’a7 Williams adds that unfortunately she has seen first hand in B.C. how an Indigenous language can be lost forever in just one generation.

She describes Indigenous languages as nothing short of precious and encourages elders and parents to share and teach Indigenous languages to young people.

Wanosts’a7 Williams says that can be done in many forms including poetry, songs and stories.

The NWT’s Official Languages Act, enacted in 1984, grants official status to nine Indigenous languages.

The act also creates certain rights for citizens as well as obligations for the NWT legislature and its government offices, schools, courts, health centres, election officials, boards and agencies.

A person can choose the language in which they want to communicate with and participate in those institutions, subject to certain regulations.

The federal government tabled a new bill earlier this month aimed at reviving and maintaining Indigenous languages in Canada, including creating a new Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the new co-developed Indigenous languages bill is about “strengthening” Indigenous culture.

Some Indigenous languages in the NWT are considered endangered.

CKLB feels strongly that it is doing what it can to help by broadcasting in no less than five Indigenous languages.

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