Brian J. Gavriloff/Edmonton Journal

Barbara Kay on preserving aboriginal languages: Cultural will cannot be outsourced

A University of Alberta instructor writes in Cree on a blackboard.

Over the weekend, the Globe and Mail published a cri du coeur by Adrienne Clarkson about the importance of language, titled All Canadians Must Tell Their Stories. The piece is stylistically elegant, as we would expect from our former governor general, but not polemically coherent.

Clarkson’s central thesis is that language is vital because “it is the basis from which we can act;” “we cannot act until we tell our own story in our own language;” and “(w)e can learn who we are only by knowing the story of which we are the heroes.” These abstract concepts have a nice ring, until we parse them. Who is “we”? What does “our own language” mean? What does it mean, linguistically, to “act”? What constitutes the “story” that makes us “heroes”?

In her own case, Clarkson’s native language — her “own” — was Cantonese. Her “story” is multiculturalism: how, as an immigrant, she became truly Canadian when she learned both French and English; and it is in these languages, not her “own,” that she tells her “story.” Thus, the basis of her ability to “act” in Canada was her acquisition of new languages. Adding to the confusion is her assertion that, “People cannot feel they belong if they do not have access to the languages in which they feel the most comfortable, even if English and French are the official languages.”

As we finally learn, she does not mean “people” in general here — she herself became completely comfortable in our official languages — rather, she means aboriginals. The thrust of this piece is that aboriginal languages are dying, and they must be saved. So using her own story as a paradigm to illustrate the importance of one’s “own” language has no relevance to what she really means to say.

Moving on to the importance of preserving aboriginal languages, Clarkson praises New Zealand for its approach to the Maori people, whose culture and vocabulary permeate society in general. She strongly implies that Canada could take a leaf from New Zealand’s book. But New Zealand is a tiny country with one aboriginal culture and language to work with (150,000 New Zealand natives speak a single language). By contrast, Canada, by Clarkson’s own calculations, is home to 250,000 people spread out over a huge geographic area, whose mother tongues originate from more than 60 indigenous language groups. So when she complains that “there is no feeling that our indigenous culture is as pervasive as it is in New Zealand,” she makes no sense, for she uses the word “culture” in the singular, which applies in New Zealand, but not in Canada, where there are multiple indigenous cultures (Cree, Inuktitut, etc).

Now we come to Clarkson’s actual proposal, namely, having “reaffirmed the central role of French and of bilingualism in Canada,” and given that indigenous language is “a human right,” it is “surely” time “for the same to happen with indigenous languages. This is a national imperative.” In other words, the teaching of indigenous languages alongside French and English is a “national imperative.” But which of Canada’s indigenous languages should be taught, Clarkson does not say. Cree? Inuktitut? Ojibway? All 60? One shudders at the political nightmare such triage would conjure.


Language is organic to culture. It is up to the people of a particular culture whether or not their language survives. For example, the common language of Ashkenazi Jews was Yiddish for centuries. The Jews’ revival of Hebrew as a living, rather than a dormant, language was a linguistic miracle. But the shift sprang directly from collective cultural will, not by imposition from the British Mandate. Meanwhile, Jews in the diaspora have no problem telling their “stories” in any number of languages.

Languages come and go with the vicissitudes of history and internal group dynamics (Yiddish inevitably became marginalized as Hebrew ascended). Nobody has the right to suppress a group’s language, as Canada did in the residential schools, but a language does not have a “right” in itself to live in perpetuity, as Clarkson seems to suggest. Only speakers of a language have rights. To those indigenous peoples demonstrating the cultural will to perpetuate their languages, we owe legal and material support in creating an optimal environment for their children’s language acquisition, with written materials to supplement their oral traditions and training in language teaching for native educators. But all such external support is useless if parents don’t want to speak to their children in their own languages.

Clarkson’s assumption that First Nations’ languages can only be saved if non-native people start learning them is maternalistic and matronizing. Languages survive if they are useful, and/or if they are loved. Cultural will cannot be outsourced.

National Post