Indigenous Languages Bill

Message from Commons--Motion for Concurrence in Commons Amendment and Non-Insistence Upon Senate Amendments Adopted

June 20, 2019

Hon. Peter Harder (Government Representative in the Senate)


That, in relation to Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages, the Senate:

(a)agree to the amendment made by the House of Commons to its amendment 11(b); and

(b)do not insist on its amendments to which the House of Commons disagrees; and

That a message be sent to the House of Commons to acquaint that house accordingly.

He said: Honourable senators, I rise to speak to the message from the other place regarding Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages.

On behalf of the government, I want to thank Senator Sinclair for sponsoring this bill. Thank you as well to other members of the Senate Aboriginal Peoples Committee for your work on this important legislation.

Bill C-91 proposes flexibility as to how communities and groups may use funding for their own language priorities. In fact, the preamble of Bill C-91 speaks to Canada’s recognition that:

 . . . a flexible approach that takes into account the unique circumstances and needs of Indigenous groups, communities and peoples is required in light of the diversity of identities, cultures and histories of Indigenous peoples;

With respect to the message from the other place, the government has accepted a total of five amendments made by the Senate, while respectfully declining 11 amendments and modifying one in the French version.

Of note, an amendment moved by Senator Patterson would clarify that legislation could include arrangements made with Indigenous governments, organizations or provincial or territorial governments in areas such as the provision of programs and services in Indigenous languages in the areas of “education, health and the administration of justice.”

The government agrees with this amendment and is open to discussing cooperative arrangements to support the use of Indigenous languages in areas of provincial and territorial jurisdiction with willing partners.

I would like to highlight an amendment proposed by Senator Sinclair that the government has accepted. That amendment would provide access to federal services where capacity and demand exist in Indigenous languages.

The government believes that this is a significant shift in the way that government could provide programs and services, and it looks forward to co-developing regulations and agreements that define, among other things, important concepts such as capacity and demand.

Overall, the government has chosen to respectfully decline Senate amendments that would reinforce stronger funding commitments within the legislative framework. While fully respecting the spirit of the amendments, the government believes that after having consulted with a number of Indigenous governments, the previous wording in Bill C-91 places a duty on the government to provide funding without infringing on the authorities of Parliament.

The government has also respectfully declined Senate amendments that would remove reference to “provinces and territories” in certain paragraphs of the bill. The government’s view is that this is not the intent of the legislation and that the constitutional framework fully reinforces the protection of rights and jurisdictions of Indigenous governing bodies and also to the division of powers between provinces and territories.

Further, it is the government’s intention that the legislation should foster cooperative dialogue on supportive Indigenous language while fully respecting all affected jurisdictions.

The government has also chosen to respectfully decline Senate amendments that sought to alter the definition clause of the bill. The government believes that the provisions as drafted are sufficiently broad to include appropriate organizations, and that to cite specific types of organizations may lead to confusion about whether the definition is intended to apply to others.

The government intends to work with Indigenous peoples and to work with any organizations that have an interest in this matter.

Bill C-91 is an important piece of legislation with immense potential to reverse the dramatic loss of Indigenous languages over the preceding decades. It reaffirms the government’s commitment to reconciliation while ensuring our Indigenous languages are strengthened and appreciated. Each and every Indigenous language in Canada will be able to benefit from this legislation once it has been enshrined into law. I thank all honourable senators for their work on this matter, including our colleague Senator Joyal, who has championed this issue through his Senate public bills over many years. This is an example of the private and tenacious work of an individual senator helping to build the case, drive debate and ultimately lay the groundwork for a major policy change in Canadian society.

On that note and in closing, I would like to quote briefly from Senator Sinclair’s remarks earlier in this Parliament on the debate of Senator Joyal’s Bill S-212. Senator Sinclair’s remarks capture the philosophical importance of language as an expression of culture, identity and world view. This is an important point as we think about Bill C-91, and also as we think about official languages in Canada, the importance of celebrating and maintaining many mother tongues in our diverse and inclusive society.

From Senator Sinclair:

‘Who are you?’ It’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a question which asks you to contemplate the fundamental question of your identity and character. To be able to answer that, you need to know where you and your ancestors came from, what you stood for, your personal and collective history, what your influences have been, what your ambitions have been and are, and what your purpose in life is . . .

Language and culture are key to personal identity. Personal identity is key to a sense of self-worth, and spiritual and mental wellness hinge on one’s sense of self-worth.

Honourable senators, for those of us who take the integrity and continued existence of our first language, whatever it is, for granted, we should walk in the shoes of fellow Canadians who do not have that security. We should feel free and try to understand the deep anxiety that would accompany a threat to one’s conceptual and ancestral world view, as expressed in language.

Therefore, honourable senators, it is important with Bill C-91 we take this important step to remedy historical injustice and act together to walk the path of reconciliation. I urge you to support this motion.

Hon. Murray Sinclair

Apparently my speech has already been delivered by Senator Harder, but thank you very much.

Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson

Well, Senator Harder didn’t deliver my speech.

I am pleased to rise today, as critic for the bill, to speak to the message received on Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages.

When I spoke to this bill at third reading, I spoke of my gratitude to the members of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples for working collegially to pass amendments unanimously that, I believe not only greatly improved the bill, but proved to witnesses who came before us and/or submitted briefs that the Senate was listening.

Our amendments addressed key concerns raised at committee and communicated to this chamber and the other place in our report on Bill C-91 at the conclusion of our pre-study. The committee opened that report by explaining that:

The vitality of Indigenous languages varies across the country, but no Indigenous language is safe. The committee recognizes that, given their critical state, work to revitalize, protect and promote Indigenous languages is an urgent task necessary to ensure that Indigenous youth for years to come can learn their own Indigenous language(s). Further, Algonquin Elder Claudette Commanda, the Executive Director of the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres, suggested that revitalizing Indigenous languages could have a positive impact on the health of First Nations communities and the self-esteem of First Nations youth.

I firmly believe that every member of our committee understood the weight and importance of the work we were doing on this historic bill.

Our report went on to identify key areas in which we could improve the bill. One of those areas was funding. The report states:

In the absence of clarity around funding, witnesses identified characteristics they believe are essential to ensure funding contributes to language revitalization. Funding must be permanent, long-term, and reflect the diversity of Indigenous Peoples and languages, including those living off-reserve and in urban centres. As emphasized by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, “funding must be consistent with Jordan’s Principle to ensure there are no jurisdictional disputes. As Jordan’s Principle ensures Indigenous children receive essential public services, regardless of where they live, Indigenous languages must be considered an essential service.” Further, witnesses felt that funding should be distributed to Indigenous Peoples undertaking language revitalization work, as opposed to national political organizations.

In an effort to address this persisting vagueness surrounding the promise of “adequate and sustainable funding” in the bill, the committee unanimously — and I feel it’s important to continually stress the word “unanimously” — agreed to adopt guiding principles to ensure that funding was fairly allotted in line with the stated purpose of this bill. Those principles included: (a) the number of persons composing the Indigenous language population of an area; (b) the particular characteristics of that population; and (c) the objective of the reclamation, revitalization, maintenance or strengthening of all the Indigenous languages of Canada in an equitable manner.

We thought carefully and took great care in developing this amendment, honourable colleagues. It is regrettable that the government did not agree with the Senate’s objective of bringing increased clarity to this important issue. Equally regrettable — and this is especially for me to say as senator for Nunavut — is the government’s choice not to give credence to the legitimate concerns of Inuit.

The committee’s report clearly points to the fact that:

Despite their involvement in the co-development process, Inuit were particularly concerned that, the bill was not distinctions-based, did not reflect Inuit priorities and did not take into account the unique status of Inuktut as a language spoken by many Inuit in their homelands.

An annex was presented to the committee by Inuit leaders and supported by witnesses such as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed; Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated President Aluki Kotierk; and Nunavut Minister of Education, Minister of Culture and Heritage, Minister Responsible for Arctic College and Minister of Languages the Honourable David Joanasie.

The annex presented thoughtful ways of addressing legitimate concerns of Inuit regarding the preservation, protection and promotion of Inuktut. It was my pleasure and great honour to present amendments that responded to the concerns surrounding the provision of services in an Indigenous language, alongside Senator McPhedran, who introduced an amendment that would recognize the unique status of Inuktut within Inuit Nunangat in the preamble.

Thank you for that, Senator McPhedran.

Additionally, Senator Coyle called for a review of service delivery within Nunavut following testimony from Nunavut Languages Commissioner Helen Klengenberg, who gave evidence that:

The Government of Canada has to comply with our Inuit Language Protection Act . . . .

She further pointed out that the Government of Canada signed a declaration during the creation of Nunavut that promised Inuit the ability to conduct government business in Inuktut.

Although all these amendments were passed by the entire committee, only my amendment on the ability of the minister to coordinate with provinces and territories on “providing Indigenous language programs and services in relation to [but I should add not limited to] education, health and the administration of justice” was accepted.

It is particularly discouraging to hear that the government rejected these amendments in light of our report very clearly affirming that:

The committee believes that Bill C-91 must better meet Inuit needs and priorities. Otherwise, the title of Bill C-91 is misleading and should be changed.

Colleagues, Bill C-91 is among several key pieces of legislation that deserved further study and improvement. However, their introduction late into the legislative session has left us where we are today; we are left with a bill that does not adequately respond to the concerns of one of Canada’s more widely spoken languages. This bill fails to assure Inuit leaders that it will meet the objective of maintaining and strengthening Inuktut.

As the senator of Nunavut, I want to insist on these amendments. I believe it is our duty as parliamentarians from regions, put in this chamber to represent the voices of the regions, to insist.

However, I know that there is no appetite hours before the other place rises, and I know that to insist now would be to jeopardize the passage of this bill. I am mindful of the positive and giant leap forward this bill will have for the protection of certain Indigenous languages in Canada. The Inuit do not want to stand in the way of the First Nations and Metis. They made that very clear from the beginning.

Therefore, with much reluctance and fully aware of the disappointment that Inuit leaders will surely feel — and they have been pressing me to insist their case right to the end — I will not be moving that the Senate insist on its amendments.

Oh, my, honourable colleagues, this has been an intense and tortuous journey. I would, though, end by stating my hope that the Aboriginal Peoples Committee will — and I look to our respected chair, Senator Dyck — in fact stay true to the promise it made at the end of its report on this bill:

. . . should the bill pass both Houses of Parliament and receive Royal Assent, your committee will continue to monitor its implementation, and progress to ensure that the concerns raised by witnesses are addressed.

I want to close by commending my friend and long-time colleague in public affairs, Senator Joyal, who did great things when he was Secretary of State. I think he inspired the government to get moving on this issue through the bill he tabled in this place, even though we knew that it could not have the power of a money bill from the other place.

Honourable senators, thank you. Qujannamiik. Koana. Taima.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore

Senator Patterson, would you accept a question?

Senator Patterson


Hon. David Richards

Thank you very much, senator. I am a full proponent of this bill and of First Nations learning, studying, writing and creating in their own languages. I always have been. It’s a very daunting task. I’m wondering about the feasibility. Where are we going to find the teachers and the people who can do it? It’s a question that comes up every time I think of this.

I had a young Mi’kmaq friend of mine here last week. He came into the chamber. He works for The Walrus magazine. I mentored this young man when he was a student at St. Thomas and now he has a job working for the better magazines in the country. He doesn’t speak his own language. He’s 28 years old and he said that his mother spoke some Mi’kmaq, but not fully.

I would ask any of the members of the Aboriginal Committee if they could answer this. It seems that it is going to be so daunting. How do we go about it?

Senator Patterson

I respect that question coming from one of Canada’s great writers.

Honourable senators, the committee was torn in looking at this bill. On the one hand, we heard many voices saying, “We’ve got to take a first step. This is a first step we cannot, as a country, not take.” On the other hand, they were saying that it was a very tentative first step.

I believe that the Indigenous languages commissioner has been allocated some $337 million in the last budget and $115 million ongoing. The task is way bigger than that.

The dilemma was whether we reject this rather tentative weak first step or do we try to change it? We tried to change it. We tried to strengthen the bill. We tried to improve the principles around funding, recognizing the size of the task, as you’ve outlined, Senator Richards. We ended up with a disappointing compromise of agreeing to support and taking the next step, as we will do today in accepting this message, watering down our amendments. That’s what happened; our amendments were watered down. However, I would say that the attention we’ve given to this bill and the attention that the Senate has given to the importance of the issue with our work should call on us all to be vigilant as we go forward with our work.

One advantage of the Senate is, God willing, we’ll all be here after the coming election, go forward with determination and vigour to monitor the progress in this work and continue to push Canada to do its duty to respect the most fundamental right of Aboriginal people, their right to language. That is the one good thing I said about this bill in speaking to it earlier. It does expressly acknowledge that Aboriginal rights —

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore

Honourable senator, your time is up.

Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck

Honourable senators, I’d like to say a few words. I was inspired by the question that Senator Richards asked. In our committee report, as Senator Patterson said as the critic of the bill, most studies that our committee has undertaken have always been done in a very collegial and respectful manner in almost all cases. Certainly in this case, that was true.

One of the things we talked about at the committee, which is in the report, is specifically with regard to your question. That is: Who is going to do the teaching?

As we know, oftentimes the teachers are those that are certified. We then urged the government to accept fluent speakers. There are a few fluent speakers who are able to pass that language on, but they don’t necessarily have a degree or a Bachelor of Education.

The fluent speakers and the elders are the ones who are going to carry the language forward. In Saskatoon, for example, we have the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre where they have recordings of elders speaking in their language. There are resources available in these community-based organizations.

The committee heard a lot about how it was necessary to utilize elders, resources that are available in the communities and not strictly rely upon universities and academically trained teachers.

I think it’s good that the government accepted a number of our amendments. Without having them all in front of me I can’t make a detailed analysis. I think the bill is good. From what we heard, people were very excited about having this bill, even without the amendments because, as Senator Patterson said, it is acknowledging the right to be taught in your own language, which is a big step forward.

It is a small step, but it’s certainly a significant step. I would not say that the amendments are watered down. I would say that it’s a good bill. It’s a good place to build. I would conclude by saying our committee has always been good at following up. We followed up with Bill S-3. We’re following up with Bill C-45. We need to continue that in the future. I’m sure that the members of this committee will continue to follow what’s happening with this language bill.

I know that people in the community are going to be writing to us, as they do now, to say, “What’s happening here?” and asking to us intervene, to make sure, continue to prod and improve this bill and initiate further actions with the next government.

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 —


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.

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.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore

Are honourable senators ready for the question?

Senator Dupuis, on debate.

Hon. Renée Dupuis

I’d like to take this opportunity to note that there are First Nations across Canada, but especially in Quebec, whose second language is French. Let me also remind you that English is the language of the federal government. For years those same First Nations were prohibited from teaching their children their mother tongue, whether it was Attikamek, Innu, or another language. For decades they persevered in the face of adversity and continued to speak their language, and continued to try to educate their children in their language. Although these languages are endangered, these First Nations have succeeded without any means or recognition, to develop programs to keep these languages alive in their community.

I want to close by quoting an Indigenous woman from the Peruvian Amazon, one of the very few people who still speak Chamicuro. She was interviewed in the year 2000 because Chamicuro is an endangered Indigenous language spoken only by elders. She said something that struck me. Their mother tongue is Chamicuro and their second language is Spanish. She said, and I quote, “There are things we cannot express in Spanish.” I think that says a great deal.

Thank you.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore

Are honourable senators ready for the question?

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore

It is moved by the Honourable Senator Harder, seconded by the Honourable Senator Bellemare, that, in relation to Bill C-91, An Act respecting Indigenous languages, the Senate—

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore

Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

(Motion agreed to.)