Indigenous language bill needs teeth

  • April 05, 2019

A law that can’t be enforced is an aspiration on a page. A law that purports to protect Indigenous language rights without providing for a way to defend those rights is little more than a “hollow promise,” says the CBA’s Aboriginal Law Section in response to the government’s proposed Bill C-91, the Indigenous Languages Act.

This isn’t the first time Canada has had to add enforcement provisions to language legislation –The Official Languages Act was amended after the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in Forum des maires de la Péninsule acadienne v Canada (Food Inspection Agency) that the purpose of remedies is to ensure that the Act “has some teeth, that the rights and obligations it recognizes or imposes do not remain dead letters, and that the members of the official language minorities are not condemned to unceasing battles with no guarantees at the political level alone.”

That’s why the Section recommends that the government make the Indigenous Languages Act justiciable, by adding remedies to ensure the full implementation of the language rights recognized by C-91.

The Section lays out a strong argument for the need for legislation protecting Indigenous language rights, noting that government played its part in helping to endanger those languages, in part through the residential school system, which did its best to eradicate them.

“(R)esidential schools were a systematic, government-sponsored attempt to destroy Indigenous cultures and languages and to assimilate Indigenous peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples,” says the Truth and Reconciliation Report, whose 94 Calls to Action include four specifically addressing the suppression of Indigenous languages, calling for the recognition of Indigenous language rights as a valued element of Canadian culture.

The Section says Bill C-91 is an opportunity to change Canada’s history by honouring and respecting Indigenous rights and language rights.

If history isn’t a compelling enough reason, the Section also notes that Indigenous languages are protected under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The constitution recognizes and affirms Aboriginal and treaty rights, which the Supreme Court has affirmed include cultural practices and thus language, which is intrinsically linked to culture. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples also recognizes Indigenous language rights.

“Acting on our recommendation would ensure that Bill C-91 is not another hollow promise to Indigenous people, by ensuring independent oversight by the judiciary in preserving and promoting Indigenous language rights in Canada.”