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Speaking Indigenous Languages Finally Welcome In Canada's House Of Commons

Many of these languages are on the verge of extinction.
Cree MP Romeo Saganash when seeking NDP leadership in 2012 .
Vince Talotta/Getty Images
Cree MP Romeo Saganash when seeking NDP leadership in 2012 .

For the first time in Canadian history, a Member of Parliament will soon be able to speak an Indigenous language in the House of Commons and be understood by everyone.

If MPs plan on speaking in an Indigenous language, they can notify the parliamentary interpretation service two days in advance and an interpreter will be provided to translate their speech or questions into English and French. The House approved the change Thursday, as recommended by the procedure committee.

To celebrate, Cree MP Romeo Saganash told HuffPost Canada he plans to speak his language for the rest of the term as soon as the Indigenous interpretation services kick in, in January.

"I am happy I will be leaving this place knowing any future Indigenous MP wanting to speak language can do so without fighting for that right," said Saganash, who is not seeking re-election in 2019.

The move is important both practically and symbolically, the procedure committee said in its report.

"The recognition of the special status of Indigenous languages in the House of Commons is an important step towards reconciliation," the report said. "Supporting the use of Indigenous languages sends a strong signal to Indigenous youth that their ancient and precious languages are validated and of worth."

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Of the 1.6 million Canadians who identify as Indigenous, only 260,000 have the ability to speak in an Indigenous language and the vast majority of these languages are considered endangered, reported the committee. There are 58 Indigenous languages in Canada, and more than 90 dialects. The most common languages are Cree, Dene, Innu, Inuktitut, Ojibway and Oji-Cree. The House of Commons currently has access to about 100 interpreters who are able to speak about 20 Indigenous languages.

Since the 1940s, Indigenous people have watched as their languages have disappeared in part because of the residential school system, the report said.

"An important consequence for many of the Indigenous people who attended these schools was that they continue to feel ashamed to use their mother tongue."

Beginning in the late 1800s, Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to government-sponsored religious schools established to assimilate them into the Christian-Canadian culture. Students suffered from widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse until the last school closed in 1996.

Liberal MP Robert Falcon-Ouellette for Winnipeg Centre called recognition of Indigenous languages in the House a "historic moment for Canadians and Indigenous peoples."

"Indigenous peoples in Canada have had their languages destroyed, suppressed, eradicated and stolen from them by the state," Falcon-Ouellette told HuffPost Friday. "The House of Commons is the most symbolic and important place in Canada, where democracy happens. If Indigenous languages are heard there, they have the potential to exist in future."

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He has also been an advocate for change, having delivered a speech in Cree in May 2017 about violence against Indigenous women.

Despite giving the interpretation service two days notice, Falcon-Ouellette was informed translation wasn't possible and his speech was not translated. Later, he raised a point of privilege, saying he was "effectively silenced" by the lack of interpretation. The Speaker of the House Geoff Regan ruled against Falcon-Ouellette, but brought the issue to the attention of the procedure committee.

Falcon-Ouellette thinks the new service is a good start.

"At the end of the day it's available and the more it's used the easier and easier it gets to do," he said. "I would love to use it as much as I possibly can. Language is culture and culture is important."

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