Celebrating National Indigenous Languages Day

Members of the Canadian delegation of Indigenous language leaders gather in Paris at the official global high-level launch of the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages at UNESCO. Photo credit: Carla Lewis Photography

By Dr. Lorna Wánosts’a7 Williams

March 31, 2023

Today is National Indigenous Languages Day, an opportunity to recognize the importance and diversity of Indigenous languages across Canada and to celebrate the efforts of those dedicating themselves to protecting, revitalizing, and relearning them.

While many of our languages are facing ongoing threats to our vitality, there are many reasons to be hopeful about their future because of the growing movement underway to reclaim and secure them for future generations.

One contributing factor is the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). This global observance is helping to draw attention to the critical status of Indigenous languages worldwide and to mobilize coordinated action towards their protection and advancement.

The first year of the Decade was action packed and full of highlights worth celebrating.

First, the Canadian launch for the Decade last Earth Day highlighted the connection between Indigenous languages and the critical guidance they can provide for protecting and living in balance with nature and addressing climate change. The kickoff event in Ottawa, hosted by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, also sparked honest conversations about the challenges Indigenous people are facing to protect and reclaim the original languages of this land. At the same time, the powerful testimonies of many young people who are diligently and creatively carrying forward this work left everyone in awe of their passion and feeling hopeful for the future of our languages in this country.

Last December, I attended the official global launch of the Decade at UNESCO’S headquarters in Paris. Over 2,300 people participated, including Indigenous language leaders and champions from 125 countries, ministers from 16 UNESCO member states, and representatives from the UN, civil society research organizations, and public- and private-sector organizations.

A highlight was helping to open the high-level celebration alongside a large and engaged Canadian delegation of Indigenous language champions and leaders. It was exhilarating to stand on stage with Chief Willie Littlechild, Richard Ejinagosi Kistabish, Art Napoleon, Aluki Kotierk and others as I shared this message of hope for the next 10 years:

I also had the pleasure of bringing five bright young Indigenous language advocates from Canada with me to Paris. One of these was Aiyana Twigg of Ktunaxa Nation in B.C., who’s learning the Ktunaxa language in the First Peoples’ Cultural Council’s one-on-one language immersion Mentor-Apprentice Program. They had the opportunity to sit in on panels, hear presentations on language revitalization projects and best practices, and participate in round table discussions. I was so impressed by their enthusiasm to actively participate, share their insights, and absorb new knowledge and perspectives they can apply to their own language work and research.

From left to right: Aiyana Twigg, language warrior and apprentice, Dr. Lorna Wánosts’a7 Williams, chair of First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation and renowned global expert in Indigenous language revitalization, and Carla Lewis, chair of First Peoples’ Cultural Council, attended the UNESCO official global high-level launch event of the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages at UNESCO in Paris. Photo credit: First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation.

Outside of the celebration, significant planning also happened in Paris. In my role as an observer on UNESCO’s Global Task Force for the Decade and as a member of the CCUNESCO’s Working Group for the Decade, I attended key meetings focused on determining concrete and immediate actions to contribute to the success of the Decade and its goals.

Dr. Lorna Wánosts’a7 Williams, attending the UNESCO official global high-level launch event of the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages at UNESCO in Paris. Photo credit: Carla Lewis Photography

The Global Action Plan for the Decade outlines a path forward. It calls for more awareness for Indigenous languages, calls on countries to provide financial support for Indigenous language revitalization, and for member states to recognize Indigenous languages and integrate Indigenous languages into government policies.

As I mentioned in this CBC article, I applaud many directions in the Global Action Plan. But to realize the vision it lays out, we also need a plan specific to Canada and a more holistic approach.

For example, language revitalization requires a multigenerational approach to language learning and instruction, and a focus on immersion to build fluency. Indigenous languages need to be accessible regardless of where people live and used regularly across generations in all facets of everyday life – in places like home, school, workplaces, community, and virtually. This is why programs like FirstVoices and Mentor-Apprentice, offered by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and funded by the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, are so important.

The Decade’s ten years of action could have impacts that will reverberate forever. And it’s an opportunity for the world to see what we already know: that Indigenous languages are powerful, important, and as relevant today as they have been since Time Immemorial.

We have a lot of work to do in the next nine years. With the energy and commitment of youth, the wisdom of Elders, and the strength of Indigenous communities, boosted by government investments and support from everyday Canadians, our languages stand a chance to survive and thrive, and be passed onto future generations, as the Decade intends.

Want to join us in working towards these big goals? I encourage you to please consider donating to the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation today.  

  • Watch a recording of the High-level Celebration of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages which took place on December 13, 2022, at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France. Dr. Williams’ remarks begin at the 26:22 mark.
  • The First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation is actively engaged in the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages as part of our commitment to elevate the efforts Indigenous people are leading to document, protect, practice, and pass on their languages. 
  • Watch the video below to Learn more:

More photos below, courtesy of UNESCO: