Elizabeth supports Indigenous Languages Act, calls for improved amendments in the future


Mr. Speaker, I appreciated the as-ever thoughtful approach of my friend from Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan on this issue. We may disagree around some of the aspects of his speech, but he is clearly very thoughtful about issues of reconciliation.

However, when the member’s leader was before the Assembly of First Nations and was asked what the Conservative platform is going to look like and what his party thinks about reconciliation, as I recall, the answer was, “You’ll have to wait. We haven’t finished figuring that out yet.”

I wonder if my hon. colleague can shed any light on how the Conservative Party thinks we can advance the essential quest for justice and reconciliation.

Mr. Speaker, I presented more than a dozen amendments at committee, and like other members, I was disappointed that there were no amendments accepted at clause by clause as the bill was reviewed.

I was very taken with the remarks by the hon member for Nunavut that he is the only Inuktut speaker in this place who is allowed to speak his mind because he sits as an independent. It is a powerful position to be in.

I have struggled with how to vote on this bill, but indigenous groups in my riding have asked me to support it. I will vote for it, but I do so with a sense of deep regret that the amendments to incorporate the Inuit people and Inuktut as a language were not heeded. It also will need substantial funding. In that struggle, I think I share a lot of what the member for Edmonton Strathcona just said. I hope that both of us have come to where we are confident that we are doing the right thing on an issue that matters so very much, which is to preserve and protect indigenous languages from coast to coast to coast.

I just want to invite my friend from Edmonton Strathcona to share where she has landed in that struggle. Even though we know that this bill is not perfect, I think it must pass.

Mr. Speaker, I want to start by acknowledging that we are standing here on the traditional territory of the Algonquin peoples and express to them our deep appreciation for their extraordinary hospitality and patience. Meegwetch.

My riding in this place, as you just spoke it, is Saanich—Gulf Islands. Saanich is an anglicism of a Sencoten word for the nation of the traditional peoples of the lands that I have the honour to represent in this place. I am still struggling to pronounce it properly. According to my friend and colleague, who is also my MLA at home, Adam Olsen, who is from the Tsartlip First Nation, it is “Wsanec”, but I am still not pronouncing it right. However, in the Sencoten language that comes from that nation where I live, I raise my hands to you, Mr. Speaker, and to all my friends and colleagues in this place, and everyone in this place is my friend, and say hiswke hiswke siam. I do not have a Sencoten translator in the booth, so I will translate that this means “honour, honour, thanks and respect”.

One of the chiefs of my territory explained to me that her grandfather told her that standing with one’s hands up in the air actually represents a tree and that the trees of our territories protect us, sustain us and that we are in a relationship with them.

Today, we have heard a lot of people in this place speaking of how language is a critical, if not foundational, indispensable part of culture. I have learned so much from my friends who are Sencoten speakers about how true that is.

I am very blessed to live on the southern tip of Vancouver Island on the coast of the Salish Sea, the most spectacularly beautiful, blessed place in this country. When we translate the word for “humans” in the language of the peoples of the territory in which, through their generosity and patience, we live, it comes out the “human people”. When we translate the word for “salmon”, it comes out the “salmon people”. The word for “whales” is the “whale people”. The word for “trees” is the “tree people”. In the creation stories that come from that culture and those peoples, the Creator actually took people and said, “You’re a hard-working people; we’ll make you the salmon.” Some people were scattered like stones across the water and became the islands themselves. The more I learn about the culture, mythology, stories, traditions and languages that come from the place I represent here, Saanich—Gulf Islands, the more I feel compelled to say that I am the member of Parliament for the human people in Saanich—Gulf Islands, and for the salmon people, and for the whale people and for the tree people. It is an extraordinarily different world view and it is communicated through language.

Currently, at the University of Victoria there is a groundbreaking program at the law school, which is under the direction of Professor John Borrows and other indigenous scholars. It is now offering degrees in indigenous law in the same way our law schools in this part of the country offer degrees in common law, which is the one I learned. I got my degree at Dalhousie University. At the University of Ottawa one can get both a common law and civil law degree. In Quebec, there is a different tradition of civil law. At the University of Victoria there will now be a degree program in indigenous law.

The programs that are taking place are bringing law students into the culture of Tsartlip. There are four first nations communities within my riding: Tseycum, Tsartlip, Pauquachin and Tsawout. The Tsartlip program involves indigenous scholar Sencoten speakers to communicate how the relationship with the land dictates the law. It is extraordinary and it is growing. The Tsartlip First Nation has an immersion program where children are currently learning Sencoten as they learn English.

They are learning from a program that uses a teaching method that comes from Hawaii. It makes us so happy, as other members have said, to hear the children speak the traditional languages that skipped a generation. Through all kinds of colonialism and oppression, whether it was the sixties scoop or residential schools, the languages were almost lost. What a tribute to the persistence and resilience of indigenous peoples that the languages were not lost.

Turning to this bill, I had 10 amendments that went to committee. I tried hard but they were not successful. They were derived from the testimony of many people, indigenous organizations and groups before committee. I desperately regret that this bill excludes the interests and concerns of Inuktitut-speaking people. The ITK’s evidence and their quite extraordinary leader, Natan Obed have gone unheard, and that is a tragedy.

I was particularly directed by a brief to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on Bill C-91 from the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, because their headquarters is in my riding of Saanich—Gulf Islands. The council had many criticisms and wanted amendments. In its brief to the committee, the council said:

We support legislation to recognize and revitalize languages. We respectfully ask that you consider our recommendations ta strengthen Bill C-91. There is an urgency to pass this legislation before the end of this parliamentary session. However, the greater urgency concerns lndigenous languages themselves…. The need to act is urgent. Nevertheless, in spite of the current status of lndigenous languages, we know that reclaiming, revitalizing, maintaining and strengthening them will be possible, with adequate, sustainable and long-term funding that is held and directed by lndigenous people.

The disappointment is large that we do not have at this point that commitment to sustainable, long-term funding. We do not have the amendments. One of my amendments was to ensure that we recognized in Bill C-91 that this is within the context of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It falls short.

I want to explain briefly why I will be voting for this bill, while I recognize it falls short. One reason is that I am amazed by the work in indigenous languages of Chief Dr. Ron Ignace of the Skeetchestn First Nation, also Shuswap. He has asked me to vote for this bill. He worked hard on the bill. He told me to get this bill through. That weighs on me. He has written a book on indigenous languages, on his own nation’s language.

Also, I have been asked by the very group whose testimony I just read in part, the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. The council said that I have to vote for Bill C-91. The council wants to get it through and get it passed.

Here is my commitment, here in this place, standing here now.

I heard the wonderful speech of my colleague from Markham—Stouffville and agree that voting for this bill is not to say that we have accomplished what needs to be done. Voting for this bill does not mean we think this bill meets what is required of us in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action. Voting for this bill is a pledge and a promise to do more.

We must do more. We must protect indigenous languages across Canada.

Protecting languages, restoring languages is not accomplished by Bill C-91, but if we do not get this passed now, we have less to cling to. My promise and my pledge is this: As leader of the Green Party of Canada, I will make reconciliation will central to our electoral campaign. Real justice, real reconciliation will be central. When we come back in larger numbers after the election, we will come back to insist that stable funding be provided, to insist on the inclusion of Inuktitut, and to insist on the things that we are honour bound to provide to ensure the protection of these languages.