Indigenous languages are slightly declining, according to recently released census data from Statistics Canada.
The 2021 census focused on languages in Canada and data shows there were 189,000 individuals who had reported having an Indigenous mother tongue in Canada.
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In Saskatchewan, about 27,000 people reported having an Indigenous mother tongue in the province. Statistics Canada said that number has declined slightly since 2016, by about 7.1 per cent.
“Now, that decline is something that we’ve seen over previous censuses,” said Chris Penney, director of the Statistics Canada Center for Indigenous Statistics and Partnerships. “There is a slow, gradual decline in the numbers of mother tongue speakers. When we look at the number of individuals who are able to speak an Indigenous language to conduct the conversation, there were 35,000 in Saskatchewan who could speak an Indigenous language well enough to carry on a conversation. That number had also declined, a little more.”
He said the number of people able to carry on a conversation in their mother tongue had dropped 7.9 per cent since the last census.
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When Solomon Ratt, a fluent Cree speaker and First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) professor, saw the census data, he knew the number could not be that low. Ratt, who is also an accomplished author of several Indigenous language books, said he sees firsthand that many are picking up their Indigenous language.
“That number has risen … there’s a lot of work being done,” he said. “There’s summer camps, immersion camps, culture camps (and) land-based education camps. There’s lots of work being done. Good things are happening in language revitalization.”
Ratt is originally from Stanley Mission, in northern Saskatchewan. He is a Swampy Cree which means he speaks the “th” dialect, however, he learned to speak, read and teach the “y” dialect which he said was foreign to him at first.
“The first initial reaction to me being exposed to the ‘y’ dialect is digging my heels and saying, ‘that’s not how we say this, because we say things different in ‘th’ dialect. Then I thought, if I have that attitude … then I’m not going to learn anything,” said Ratt. “So, I put my pride in my back pocket and said, ‘OK, teach me.’”
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Having been an Indigenous Cree professor for 38 years, Ratt said it’s important for him to teach others to learn their language to carry on with traditions.
“I’ve been speaking my language all my life … to be able to understand a lot of the lessons in our original stories and our traditional stories,” said Ratt. “Our languages are very important to who we are as (Indigenous) people.”
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There were 63 Indigenous communities across Canada that Statistics Canada were unable to collect data from in 2021. This was due to a number of factors including restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic, forest fires and the unmarked grave discoveries. However, Penney said historically, the number of people speaking Indigenous languages has been decreasing since the late 90s.
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“Those trends are consistent with past censuses,” said Penney. “We were able to factor in and account for the data quality issues which do periodically come up and we’re confident in those figures.”
According to the census data, the two most common Indigenous languages spoken in Canada are Cree and Inuktitut.
There are 27,500 Indigenous language speakers in Saskatchewan. Manitoba sits at 26,500 and Alberta is at 24,600. Statistics Canada will release data on Sept. 21 on Indigenous languages but it will be broken down by Indigenous identity.
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