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Bill S-220 - An Act to amend the Languages Skills Act (Governor General) - Second Reading

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at second reading of S-220. I would like to thank Senator Carignan for introducing this bill, thereby giving senators the opportunity to discuss and debate bilingualism. It also gives senators the chance to confront the elephant in the room: the central question around the history of languages in Canada, their uses in the historical and current colonization of First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-status peoples, and the effects of this continuing assimilation and oppression in the present day.

As parliamentarians, we have an opportunity to end the ongoing subordination of Indigenous languages and identities in Canada. I first want to reiterate, as expressed by Senators Downe and Dalphond in their speeches, that the French and English were not the founding nations of Canada, as was stated by Senator Carignan in his speech. The First Nations and Inuit have been living here on these lands from time immemorial. They had their own distinct systems of government, including laws and constitutions, their own distinct societal structures and functions in their strong collectives, and a close link to territories and surrounding natural resources.

The Métis were to come later as the children of First Nations and Europeans. Initially, the Métis had the great gift of being a bridge between the two worlds until racism and competition marginalized them. There were no non-status people at that time, as the Indian Act was not yet an idea.

As you will know, this law would come to have a profoundly negative effect on First Nations, paving the way for the sustained disenfranchisement of the original peoples and their descendants.

First Nations and Inuit were the original inhabitants of this land, so why are their languages not officially recognized as are French and English? First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-status have their own ancient, unique and unparalleled traditional knowledge that is passed down through language and culture. We are not saying that everyone must learn these languages; we are saying that our languages are just as important as English and French. We have struggled greatly to maintain them through centuries of colonialism. We now have federal legislation supporting their survival and resurgence. Should we not, then, entrenched them accordingly? In South Africa, as an example, 11 languages hold official status under their 1996 constitution, and an additional 11 are to be promoted and developed.

Honourable senators, First Nations no longer want to be prevented from the ability to integrate and reflect our own ethnocultural diversity. Language plays an important role in giving identity but also in removing it. The dominance of the French and English languages and the power they carry continue to lessen and diminish Indigenous cultures. I do not want our future generations to continue to exist for others.

The prevalence of language domination is a form of exerting one’s sovereignty. In that case, why are Indigenous peoples expected to continue to suppress ourselves as a third level of government and suppress our languages? First Nations, Inuit and Métis are self-determining peoples and sovereign nations. The word “sovereign” in Cree is e-ti-pee-thi-mi-soot, which means “he or she belongs to themselves.”

At its foundation, colleagues, language is used for connection. It is meaningful because it is useful. Language is powerful. That is why the fight exists for some to retain their mother tongue while others work to suppress or extinguished it.

Honourable senators, you are all aware that I was interred in a residential school for 11 years, from age 5 to 16. I was prevented from speaking my language, immersed into an English-speaking world and forced to adopt the English language by French nuns and priests.

When I was about eight, I was home for the summer and speaking Cree to my dad, and he turned to me and said, “Speak English.” I remember being surprised. I was later to learn that he meant for me to master the English language, because we had no choice. In residential school, the use of Cree resulted in punishment. My dad later told me that I could relearn my Cree language, as it would always be with me since I had been fluent in it at one time. I am still relearning how to speak it to this day.

Colleagues, do you know how difficult it is to relearn your mother tongue once it has been forcibly removed from you? I have the words clearly in my head, but I’m unable to voice them, mostly from shame but also because it has been a long time since I have used the muscles required to pronounce them.

My language was made foreign to me. I still carry the shame of being told at a very young age that my language was that of the savage and uncivilized person. By whom? By the French nuns and priests who ran Guy Hill School, a residential school.

Overcoming shame is a difficult and convoluted process, especially if you do not know the genesis of that shame. My difficulty in relearning my language is deeply entrenched in shame.

On December 10, 2021, I headed out by car to Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, travelling alone for the first time. I have travelled there on different occasions with my daughter to visit the nuns that had been at Guy Hill. These were nuns with whom I had a spirit-bound relationship. One in particular, Sister Evelyn, was a surrogate mom to me because of the loss of my own mom at the age of five.

In my search for Sister Evelyn, I tracked her down in 2013 at the retirement home of Sisters of Saint Joseph and Saint-Hyacinthe. As I drove into Quebec and saw the French-only signs, a language that I am not well versed in, the feeling of fear and vulnerability overcame me. It was truly an “a-ha moment” for me. I realized I still remembered deep within me the fear of French people and the French language. My loneliness came back in waves as if I were back in residential school, with little control over my life and decisions.

On that day, the weather was inclement, and since all the signage was in French, I was unable to determine what the roadside warnings were saying. I thought, “For all this talk about respecting bilingualism, why are the signs in Quebec not bilingual?”

Honourable senators, as I had previously mentioned, my mother was Métis and her family fled to Brochet, Manitoba, when they were forced off their land in Selkirk, Manitoba. I had my family tree done in 2018 and found out that my mother’s side was traced back to France, where my ancestor departed in 1500. I thought, “Now I have a reason to learn French. But first, I must relearn my mother tongue, the Cree language.”

As part of my own journey of reconciling myself with my Cree identity, I have looked at ways of dissecting why structures in Canada, inadvertently or not, continue to contribute to the elimination of First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-status cultures, politics, identity and connection to the land.

First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-status peoples cherish their language the same way the French and English do theirs. We see language as inseparable from our bodies and minds, our culture, our history, our land and our environment, as do you. And yet, we have two separate histories. Yours is more privileged than mine, and it seems that we will be forced to continue down these two separate paths.

The French retain their culture and language because they had that privilege through the unilateral application of legislation based on the incorrect assumption that they are a founding nation. But we could not keep ours, even though we were the original inhabitants. Instead, both the French and English conveyed their thoughts, beliefs and customs through language as a cultural tool of oppression. Yet, the First Nations people have never fully accepted this violent, cultural and linguistic sovereignty. Instead, we continue to make our own way back to our own sovereignty as more and more of us retain our languages.

In his second reading speech, Senator Carignan stated that he wants to add the Governor General of Canada to the list of the 10 officers of Parliament who must be bilingual at the time of their appointment. The Governor General, Mary Simons, is currently bilingual; she speaks English and Inuktitut. I heard from many people across the land about the pride and hope they had that one of their own was now at the top of our constitutional hierarchy. I wish Indigenous peoples had a commissioner of languages so we could hear both sides of this conversation.

Mary Simon is the ideal person to lead the reconciliation-conciliation process in Canada. Canada should be proud of an Inuit woman appointed as our Governor General. This will deepen people-to-people ties and strengthen Canada’s relationships both domestically as well as internationally with partners who have their own Indigenous populations.

I would like to state that I understand the ongoing fight of the French for linguistic rights and recognition. Indigenous languages deserve those rights and considerations as well. If we want Indigenous youth to be encouraged and empowered to retain their own languages, it should be signalled by codification into the Constitution. Doing so would bring further social cohesion to this country. It is worth repeating that one of the Senate’s constitutional roles is to protect and uphold the voices of minorities, such as Indigenous populations.

Colleagues, I believe this bill should be voted on and subsequently sent to committee where it would be well served to hear from the Indigenous and all other perspectives. Thank you.

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