Calls for Indigenous language services have been made for decades, reports show

Language commissioners in the Northwest Territories have called for access to Indigenous language services for years. Those calls were made in a recent annual report from the territory’s languages commissioner, and the same recommendations can be found in reports dating back 20 years. “It’s frustrating and it’s also a common theme in the reports that there’s been no action on the recommendations put forward,” said Brenda Gauthier, the territory’s Official Languages Commissioner. Previously the language commissioner had no enforcement powers, but now the role now has the authority to take the territorial government to Supreme Court if a recommendation isn’t followed. This came in 2023, after the assembly passed a bill that does allow the commissioner to take action.While the bill finally gave the role “some teeth,” Gauthier said, it is not quite what she was hoping for.”I thought [it] was a little extreme,” Gauthier said.”I was looking for more of a timeline put in the department that I could … maybe go to the minister to help push those recommendations forward … [but] going to the Supreme Court, it does give me something to push the departments if I needed to.”The N.W.T. Indigenous Languages Action Plan from 2018-2022. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)No Indigenous language complaints since 2017 While the commissioner role finally has a way to take action, one of the challenges is relaying to the territorial government the seriousness of language rights, when the number of complaints is low or non-existent. Complaints can be made in person, by phone, through mail, email or through the online complaint form on the website that is available in English. There have been no official complaints filed for Indigenous language rights since 2017.Meanwhile, in the last decade there have been 35 official complaints related to French language rights and one complaint for English language services. “The biggest challenge is when no complaints come to my office. The government, the GNWT and the different departments and institutions don’t see it as a requirement they have to fulfil because nobody’s complaining,” Gauthier said. When the commissioner role was created, the territorial government had a Language Bureau with access to all the official languages including Indigenous languages. Established in the early 1970s, the bureau ran for approximately 25 years before it was shut down in the late 90s. Nothing similar has ever re-opened.”It would be nice if there was a centralized location that all government departments can go to, because we’re trying to get government institutions and departments to provide the service to the public, but if they have no place to go to provide support to them — it’s a problem,” Gauthier said. Yellowknife, Ndilǫ and Dettah have bilingual stop signs with ‘stop’ written in English and Wiliideh. (Avery Zingel/CBC)A court case from 2006 ruled that French services were inadequate in the territory. Residents have a right to receive territorial services in official languages in a region or community where that language is spoken and there is “significant demand” for that language, according to the Official Languages Act. Part of the ruling by Justice Mary T. Moreau was that the government must establish the criteria defining “significant demand” under the Official Languages Act. Nearly two decades after the court decision, the definition for “significant demand” still does not exist.Looking to the future Work on language is being done in the territory, said Caitlin Cleveland, N.W.T. official languages minister. In 2018, the territorial government released a seven-year action plan for Indigenous languages. One of the goals was to develop access to Indigenous language services in the N.W.T.  According to an online tracker, that goal is still “on track” — the plan is slated to end in 2025. It’s frustrating and it’s also a common theme in the reports that there’s been no action on the recommendations put forward.- Brenda Gauthier, N.W.T. official languages commissionerThere are two official languages roles in the territory — the minister is in charge of promotion, education and revitalization while the commissioner’s role is investigative. There is always a job for an official language commissioner, Cleveland said, because languages are important in the territory.”When I have the opportunity to speak with residents, language revitalization always comes back to healing and it comes back to people reclaiming culture and tradition,” Cleveland said. “But that doesn’t mean that that role won’t evolve over time, as our languages in the territory do as well.”Gauthier does not think it is a role that needs to evolve — just one that needs to be listened to.”My focus is the government institutions need to be doing what they’re legally required to do,” Gauthier said.”I want to hear that elders can go to the health centre and get service in their language. I want to hear when they move from the community into Yellowknife, they still have access to service in their language. That’s what I want to see.”

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