Losing a legacy
Aboriginal languages slipping away

Terry Halifax
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Feb 21/00) - Aboriginal languages are dying a slow death in the North and leaders are looking for new ways to preserve this legacy -- including legislation and financial incentives.

Senator Nick Sibbeston believes learning language should be legislated to convince aboriginals and non-aboriginals to learn a native language and people doing so should be rewarded with cash.

"Aboriginal leaders have to do something about it," he said. "It has to be done in a positive way -- never coerce; do it by encouraging, do it by enticing, do it by giving people bonuses, giving people rewards to encourage people to have their children speak their native language."

"If your child at five or six is fluent in an aboriginal language, give him a bonus."

Without change, the senator predicts the demise of original languages and the incentive is one of several ideas Sibbeston has suggested to preserve original languages in the NWT.

"Unless they do something drastic, the aboriginal languages are going to be dead," he predicted. "If we don't do something, by the year 3000 there won't be any aboriginal languages left."

Sibbeston also referred to the controversial Quebec language law as a possible model for self-governed communities.

"In our country you just need to look at Quebec and the things they've done to preserve their culture and ensure that their language is continued," Sibbeston said. "They've taken definite measures and they've gone to the extent of legislating in an attempt to make it more visual, more prominent.

"In time, with aboriginal self-government, many of the aboriginal groups will have more control over culture and language and they'll be faced with what to do; what steps do they take to ensure the viability and continuation of their language," he added.

While the bilingual Sibbeston admitted his children never learned Slavey, he believes the home is where language should be learned.

"It really is incumbent on each parent to teach to make sure that aboriginal language is spoken in the home -- that's where it all starts," he said. "Failing that, then you have the schools and other institutions having to teach and encourage aboriginal languages.

"Unless every individual makes the decision that their children are going to learn Slavey and take steps, it's not going to happen," Sibbeston said.

Ideas for the future

The senator said his blueprint for the future of original language are suggestions. He said bold decisions and fresh ideas have to be considered to preserve the legacy.

"Let's find some innovative new ways that we can turn the whole picture around, so that aboriginal language will thrive," he said.

NWT Language Commissioner Judy Tutcho applauded the senator's enthusiasm, but stopped short of endorsing Sibbeston's suggestions of legislation and incentives.

"I don't think legislation is the route to go," she said. "Sometimes when you legislate too fast, you can't balance that with the resources."

Tutcho said aboriginal culture is fading because they have relied too heavily on the same people to reinforce language and tradition and, with the death of these elders, so too dies the culture.

"We are suffering because we haven't expanded," Tutcho said, adding that recent cuts to language programs will further hinder cultural advancement.

"(The French) allotment hasn't changed -- it is the same as last year, but ours has gone down, from $2.5 (million) to $1.9 (million) over the next five years," she said. "I don't know what that is based on."

The majority of the reduction comes from the division split with Nunavut, according to Chuck Arnold, director of Culture and Heritage.

"In the aboriginal languages area, we got $2.5 million a year. This year, in aboriginal languages we're getting $1.9 million for the year, so the $2.5 million was for the whole pre-division NWT and the $1.9 million is for post-division.

According to the most recent census, there were 19,000 aboriginals and 955 francophones living in the western territory.

Arnold said while the GNWT supplements the federal funding, the actual figures are hard to pin down as some is funnelled through different departments.

Based on the 1996 populations, the federal government contributes $1,675.39 per francophone living in the NWT and $100 per aboriginal towards language and culture.

"In effect, they've agreed to pay all our costs for French language and they've agreed to contribute towards aboriginal language," Arnold said. "The government of the Northwest Territories also spends a lot of money on aboriginal languages."

Threads of culture

strengthen ties

The preservation of culture and language have had some success stories, but not without a great deal of work.

The Dogribs have set a fine example with the preservation of their language and culture, Tutcho said. The band has taken a pro-active, focused approach to culture and language that has worked very well.

"It's because they have one vision; one goal," she said. "They have it organized. They have it under the service board and they're training teachers in their own language, delivering in their own languages. They have leaders who are committed."

Tutcho said the Dogribs have used the two key components to preserve their language.

"The way they are going is awesome," Tutcho said. "There are two ways of keeping your language alive: one is through your traditional activities and one is through speaking your language and they do both very well.

"There is so much pride there and the Dogribs have always been such proud people, but this just brings it back that much more," she said. "Their spirituality is incredible; their church is full every Sunday and it's just singing. And the singing brings back the spirit."

Tutcho's own personal ties to language harken back to her childhood and sense of community.

"For myself it's important because I live in it," she said. "That's the importance of it, the whole pride issue; the upbringing of your principles."

"It's another way of escaping the world out there. You can get completely lost in your own world just within your own language," Tutcho affirmed. "I think that in itself is music."

Daniel Lamoureaux, executive director for the Federation Franco-teNoise represents about 1,000 francophones living in Yellowknife, Hay River, Inuvik and Fort Smith.

The preservation of the French language is essential to the preservation of francophone heritage, he said.

"It is us," Lamoureaux stated simply. "It is the doorway to our culture."

The initial goal of Federation Franco-teNoise is to instill language at an early age, but funding limits only allow for two French schools in the NWT.

"Our first priority is to be able to offer education in French," he said. Unfortunately, so far we can only offer it in Yellowknife and Hay River."

He said the association also ensures contact for members throughout the territory.

"The second priority is to have a network of associations in each of these communities," he said.