Two Northwest Territories MLAs used this year’s Indigenous Languages Month to ask more of the territorial government in preserving and promoting Indigenous languages.
Katrina Nokleby, MLA for Great Slave – wearing a coat designed by Haida artist Dorothy Grant – began her member’s statement on Friday with a greeting in Tłı̨chǫ.
Nokleby said that while 38.5 percent of NWT residents aged 15 and older can speak their traditional language, “there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure northern Indigenous languages are no longer at risk of endangerment.”
“It is important that we preserve and revitalize Indigenous languages through their use and education as well as implementing new technology to ensure these languages will survive for generations to come,” she said.
Nokleby pointed to the territory’s mentor-apprentice program as one such method. That program connects those interested in learning their language with fluent speakers.
According to Education, Culture and Employment Minister RJ Simpson, 70 pairs of mentors and learners participated in the first two years of the program. This year 60 people applied and 40 were accepted, he said, adding the program had not been affected by Covid-19.
“It is very popular and it is growing in popularity every year,” he said.
“It is a solid program, and I think the people who are participating in it genuinely enjoy it.”
Nokleby encouraged the territory to also reach out to “established technological giants” like Google Translate to ensure existing platforms and apps digitally capture Indigenous languages.
“It seems to me it would be very smart to approach a good, large company like Google who may want to look really good in helping a small jurisdiction to preserve the language,” she said.
“I’m a firm believer in not reinventing the wheel.”
Google Translate currently supports 108 languages. The company has in the past been urged to add Indigenous languages to the app. Montreal-based publisher Joseph John’s petition to add Cree, launched earlier this year, has garnered more than 2,300 signatures.
Simpson was receptive to Nokleby’s idea.
“Just imagine if we could get nine Indigenous languages onto Google Translate. That would be something,” the minister said.
“I look forward to following up with the member on this one.”
Should Michif be an official language?
Rocky Simpson, MLA for Hay River South, took the opportunity to advocate for recognizing Michif – spoken by Métis peoples – as an official language in the territory.
There are currently 11 official languages in the NWT, nine of which are Indigenous.
According to Simpson, there are approximately 300 Michif speakers in the territory. Since it is not recognized an official language, the territory does not track those numbers.
Simpson noted that his own father spoke Michif but did not pass it down. The MLA, in turn, wasn’t able to pass it down to his son – the minister, RJ Simpson.
“I think it’s an important part of the Northwest Territories because it’s language that helps identify who we are,” Simpson senior said.
Minister Simpson noted a committee of MLAs is reviewing the Official Languages Act and promised to look into the matter further.
“I know that there are people who are very passionate about Michif language in the territory and they are working to revitalize it,” he said.
“I would love to see it grow, and I would love to see more than just a few vibrant Indigenous languages.”
The discussion around making Michif an official language stretches back decades.
The first annual report from the NWT Languages Commissioner, in 1993, recommended that the territory support the research, documentation and analysis of the language in the territory to “make an informed decision regarding Michif’s status in the future.”
The issue was raised again in a 2003 review of the Official Languages Act, which recommended that Michif be researched and recognized as a heritage language.
Current MP Michael McLeod, who was then an MLA representing the Deh Cho, said at the time: “The Michif language is still out there, floating in limbo.”
NNSL reported last week that Vance Sanderson, a Métis linguist in Fort Smith, is continuing his work to promote and revitalize the language.