Senate adopts Indigenous Languages Act, with amendments

Bill C-91 now recognizes the importance of Inuktut to Inuit Nunangat

Members of the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples are seen last year during a tour of the Western Arctic. The committee voted last Thursday to adopt the Indigenous Languages Act with amendments largely prompted by Inuit groups. (Photo courtesy of the Senate)

By Sarah Rogers

The Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples has adopted an amended version of Bill C-91, the Indigenous Languages Act, with changes largely prompted by Inuit groups.

The legislation, introduced this past winter, would see the government establish an Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages, with a mandate to support and promote language revitalization efforts.

It would also give federal institutions the power to translate their own documents or offer interpretation.

“On the whole, the amendments passed strengthen the bill and better enable Indigenous peoples to reclaim, revitalize, maintain and strengthen their own languages,” said committee chair Senator Lillian Dyck on June 13.

“Of particular attention are a series of amendments that now include access to services and programs in Indigenous languages where there is sufficient demand and access.”

Dyck referred specifically to testimony by Inuit groups, who asked that the legislation ensure access to certain services, like education, health and justice, in Inuktut.

To that end, the committee passed an amendment that requires the minister of heritage and multiculturalism to review and report on the availability and quality of federal government services provided in Inuktut.

The committee also agreed to recognize the importance of Inuktut to Inuit Nunangat.

Though the legislation was touted as being co-developed alongside Indigenous groups, it received a cool reception from Inuit groups when it was tabled in February.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami chided the government for the absence of any Inuit-specific content; its president, Natan Obed, accused the government of “yet another legislative initiative developed behind closed doors by a colonial system.”

The national Inuit organization filed this submission last February, calling for certain amendments to the bill, including the development of a separate annex for Inuktut; recognition of Inuktut as an “original language of Canada,” and the negotiation of a separate funding agreement.

Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson credited the testimony of groups like ITK and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. over the last few months for re-shaping the legislation, though he said the process felt rushed.

“The government did pride itself on having worked hard to co-develop this legislation, but [for] the Inuit, was very clear to the committee that the process had fallen far short of fulfilling the government’s commitment to develop distinction-based legislation,” Patterson told the committee on June 13.

“I’m pleased that the committee agreed to recognize the importance of Inuktut to Inuit Nunangat, and appropriate funding levels based on a series of principles, including the use and vitality of a language and the objective of reclamation, revitalization, maintenance or strengthening of all Indigenous languages of Canada in an equitable manner.”

In a statement released June 14, ITK said it welcomed the Senate’s acknowledgement of some of its recommendations.

“It is regrettable that not all of the well-reasoned and thoughtful considerations put forward by Inuit were included by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples,” ITK said in a statement, calling on MPs to include all its recommendations before the bill’s final passage.

Bill C-91 will now go back to the House of Commons, where MPs will vote on the committee’s amendments and pass it into law.

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