Georgina Liberty made history last week when she was appointed a director of the new federal Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages.
The office, a product of the Indigenous Languages Act passed in 2019, will “support Indigenous peoples in their self-determining efforts to reclaim, revitalize, maintain, and strengthen Indigenous languages,” Canadian Heritage said in a news release.
Liberty will serve as the office’s Métis director. She joins new commissioner Ronald E Ignace – former Kukpi7 of the Skeetchestn Indian Band – alongside Inuit director Robert Watt and First Nations director Joan Greyeyes.
Liberty, a member of the Manitoba Métis Federation, said she applied for the role because of “a strong belief that particularly our Michif language but all Indigenous languages are struggling and we’re losing our speakers very quickly.”
The office’s commissioner and directors were announced as Bill-C15, legislation supporting the alignment of Canadian laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passed in the Senate.
Article 13 of the UN Declaration states “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop, and transmit to future generations” their languages.
“I really strongly believe that our connection to community, our connection to our culture, and our traditions all stem from our language,” said Liberty.
“If we don’t revive our language and revitalize it and strengthen it and bring it back to our communities, our children are going to be lost as a culture and as a Nation.”
Despite her father speaking fluent Michif, Liberty said she never learned the language.
“Our Elders are leaving us, and so we’re not having that connection. And as you know, Michif is an oral language, it was something that we didn’t write down. We didn’t make books about it and that sort of thing, and the way we were taught was orally,” she said.
“We learned through whatever we were doing in the day, whether we were helping our aunties and our kookums or whether we were out on the fishing line or trapping or whatever. The language was always spoken and so that’s how we learned. Unfortunately, hose traditions still happen but the language isn’t spoken.”
The work of the new office begins with assessing other language revival projects. Liberty said work being done in the NWT is a good example.
“I know that they – the locals or the [Métis] Nation in the Northwest Territories – are hoping to revive their language and they’re working very strongly on a number of projects, so I think we’ve got good examples to follow or to check in to, to see how we want to start building this plan forward,” she said.
Preserving Michif in the NWT
Vance Sanderson, languages manager for the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, sees establishment of the federal office as “a positive step” toward Indigenous language recognition.
Sanderson hopes more community members will now “work toward signage, documentation, television, radio, any area that language could go into to make it more relevant and fluid within our communities.”
He suggested funding for small businesses needs to be considered.
“Say if you need to translate all your store’s signage within each area of an aisle. Have everything funded and supported, and each business or community know that it’s there.”
Nine Indigenous languages – in addition to French and English – are currently recognized as official languages of the NWT.
Michif has so far been left off that list but a campaign to add it has reached the territory’s legislature.
Garry Bailey, president of the NWT Métis Nation, said community language programs are an essential part of “moving forward to try and reestablish our languages.”
“We just start off with educating everybody on our language, including ourselves, because we lost our language due to the residential schools. So we’ve got to revitalize our language in the community, at the local level,” he said.
“It’s going in and talking in our language on the radio, and get Elders to come in and tell stories.”
‘A tribute to my father and my upbringing’
Liberty agrees education will play an important role in Indigenous language revitalization.
“If we could get our languages being taught in the school, that would be an amazing accomplishment. You know, maybe not every school in Canada is going to start teaching because we just … don’t have the people. They’re not, as they would consider, a qualified teacher in the school system ” she said.
“So there is work that has to be done on that, you know? Getting the education system to understand that our way of learning is just as important and has just as much significance, if not more, to our people than the Western ways.”
For Liberty, becoming a director of the new languages office carries timely personal significance.
“I am just so honoured to be the person that was appointed as the Métis director for the Nation, across national Canada, because it’s such a tribute to my father and my upbringing,” she said.
“Even though I don’t speak the language, the fact that my father was such a respected Elder and a … heritage Michif speaker, I feel that I am doing him proud. Even though he has left us. He just left us actually in February so I have this belief that he’s helping me and guiding me through this whole process.
“This is a really proud moment in our history.”