Dr. Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams, Chair, First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation

Indigenous languages are at the heart of who we are as Indigenous Peoples, connecting us to our cultures, spirituality, identities, and the land.

There’s a growing movement underway, driven by Indigenous Peoples everywhere, to rebuild and secure the vitality of our languages for future generations.

The United Nations proclaimed 2022 to 2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages to draw global attention to the critical status of many Indigenous languages around the world and to mobilize stakeholders and resources for their protection, revitalization, and advancement.

The Decade means a lot to me. It represents colonial governments finally acknowledging the Indigenous languages of their lands, of their countries. It’s important because when people recognize Indigenous languages exist and matter, it’s possible then to begin to build understanding that it’s critical that countries retain them and not to continue to destroy them.

I travelled to Algonquin territory in Ottawa on behalf of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation to participate in Languages of the Land, the Canadian launch of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages on April 22. The Canadian Council for UNESCO, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and the Canada Council for the Arts were so thoughtful in bringing this beautiful celebration to life. It’s been a real honour to be able to participate and witness the launching of the Decade.

It was exhilarating to spend time with young people who are so actively engaged in Indigenous language and cultural revitalization, older Indigenous people who’ve been working in this area for generations, along with Indigenous leaders, government officials, diplomats, and organizational representatives.

12-year-old Odeshkun Thusky welcomes people to the territory and delivers an opening prayer in his Indigenous language at the Canadian launch of the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages in Ottawa on April 22, 2002.

The celebration opened with a 12-year-old boy who made an impactful statement about the importance of his language and our joint responsibility to take care of this land. He shared a traditional drum song and a prayer from his people with such confidence and grace.

We enjoyed wonderful musical performances by a young Inuk and a young Cree woman who each performed in English and their own languages. What I saw was how all these young people can shift from one world to the other, from an English or French world to their own Indigenous world. It was so encouraging and a great example of what I hope to see more of: young Indigenous people connected to and sharing their languages and cultural practices in traditional ways while also building them into different cultural worlds.

Her Excellency Mary Simon, the Governor General of Canada, delivers a speech about the importance of Indigenous languages and reconciliation at the Canadian launch on April 22, 2022, of the UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages.

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Mary Simon, the Governor General of Canada, delivered moving remarks in her Inuktitut language, as well as English and French, which was so special and a real privilege to behold. She emphasized that for our languages to be maintained, we need to use them, teach them, and help them evolve. Her words remind us that safeguarding Indigenous languages calls for daily action.

I heard the words of Grand Chief Willie Littlechild who’s been so staunch in his advocacy and language and culture revitalization efforts. He stressed Indigenous languages matter for peacebuilding, sustainable development, and reconciliation. Our languages need to be protected, revitalized, shared, and appreciated so they can thrive into the future and because they’re inextricably linked to our continued existence as Indigenous Peoples.

I witnessed the passion of many young people who’ve continued the important work – with creativity and courage – of language revitalization my generation and others started. We’re old and we’ve worked all of our lives for this. It’s so important to lift up our young people for their efforts and recognize their voices are strong.

It’s this energy and passion that’s responsible for all we have been able to achieve, especially in recent years, to protect and revitalize our languages.

Around that time, Canada passed the federal Indigenous Languages Act, a testament to the perseverance of many Indigenous people in this country, especially Chief Perry Bellegarde who’s been steadfast in his leadership to ensure our languages survive. This legislation is a big step forward and paved the way for the new Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages. Together, these mechanisms will guide and direct how Indigenous languages will be treated nationally and inform the policies and practices required to not just protect our languages, but to have them flourish in this country.

We recently had the United Nations 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, which mobilized the international community to maintain, revitalize, and recognize Indigenous languages.

In British Columbia, there have been significant developments contributing to Indigenous language revitalization and building fluency in our communities. In 2018, the B.C. government provided a historic $50m investment to support First Nations language revitalization across the province, which is a meaningful step in the right direction. As a result, we’re seeing an expansion of language documentation, planning, learning, and technology projects led by B.C. First Nations communities who’ve been able to access more stable and longer-term funding and increased support from First Peoples’ Cultural Council. First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation is increasing grants and expanding programs like FirstVoices.

Young First Nations children in B.C. are immersed in their native language in a language nest.

Even in the face of challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, First Nations communities in B.C. have adapted, finding safe ways to keep documenting, practicing, and holding onto their languages. It’s encouraging that Indigenous language learning is on the rise in B.C., especially among young people, and I’ve watched with excitement as some have gone on to teach, further expanding community capacity. This is what I love to see. We are moving forward.

My hope for the next 10 years is for us to continue to build on what we’ve been doing over the last several years. What we’re planning in the Decade is geared towards ensuring all Indigenous languages are supported, rebuilt, recognized, and used around the world and in Canada, and increasing fluent speakers.

I hope we’ll finally have substantial and consistent long-term funding for Indigenous communities to do the necessary work to further our languages. That’s what we’re driving towards at the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation. We’re committed to ensuring B.C. First Nations communities have the funding and resources to safeguard and rebuild their cultural systems.

The First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation will be engaged in the International Decade of Indigenous Languages to capitalize on the momentum of this beautiful Indigenous-led movement to keep passing our languages down, from one generation to the next. We invite people to support us in this work by donating to the Foundation.

I want us to work together to rebuild our languages, to make them fully a part of our lives, wherever we live, and however old we are. We know it’s a challenge for us as Indigenous people to pick up the pieces, the shards that have become our languages and knowledge systems, but it’s our job to pick them up and put them back together.

Young First Nations children in B.C. sit at a table in a language nest, a program that immerses them in their native language.

I’m inspired by Indigenous communities who are collaborating and finding different ways to support their language work, in all areas of the family, in the community, including schools and community events. The work being done across the country, especially in B.C., is being noticed by people globally and it’s making a tangible difference.

Dr. Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams is greeted by John Geiger, Chief Executive Officer of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, at Languages of the Land, the Canadian launch of the United Nations Decade of Indigenous Languages held on April 22, 2022 in Ottawa, Canada.

My message to non-Indigenous peoples is that we must see the original languages of the land across this beautiful, beautiful country as belonging to everyone who settles here. It’s the responsibility of every person who’s chosen this land to know they’ve also chosen a relationship with the land. They have a responsibility to uphold the languages of this land, to learn them, know them, celebrate them, and to share them along with each of us.

I know by 2032 our languages will surely have a place in this country we call Canada. Let’s come together again in 10 years to celebrate our achievements!

Watch a recording of the Languages of the Land, the Canadian launch celebration for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, which took place on April 22, 2022, in Ottawa, Canada: https://youtu.be/qAbAv7K3JgA

Dr. Williams’ remarks at the close of the Indigenous Languages Intergenerational Circle Discussion begin at the 4:58:30 mark.