top of page
KWE graphic2_edited.jpg



Political columnist for Le Journal de Québec and Le Journal de Montréal; Assistant News Director for Le Journal de Québec.

Quebec's Indigenous Peoples and Francophones, whose destinies have intertwined many times in history, share common concerns about preserving and protecting their languages, a precious instrument for transmitting their respective cultures. 


"Language is what makes us human. When people's freedom to use their language is not guaranteed, it limits their freedom of thought, opinion and expression, as well as their access to rights and public services", said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


Ms Azoulay made these remarks last year at the launch of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032), which aims to draw the world's attention to the alarming loss of these languages, and the importance of safeguarding them. Her words clearly demonstrate the importance of safeguarding a language for a people.  


On this occasion, UNESCO informed us that no less than 40% of the 6,700 Indigenous languages spoken on the planet are threatened with extinction in the long term. The organization is calling for a global action plan to increase the number of speakers, improve the mastery and functional use of Indigenous languages, increase respect and dialogue, and strengthen international cooperation.  


In reality, the efforts are the responsibility of each of the countries and, above all, the nations concerned. Understandably, these efforts will have to be considerable if these languages are to be safeguarded. But despite this, every small gesture counts, and must be made by both Indigenous peoples and governments, to ensure the survival of these languages. 



Unique case in Wendake


Speaking of survival, I recently realized, during an interview with Rémy Vincent, Grand Chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation, that for over a century, there have been no Huron and Wendat speakers in Quebec.  


My heart sank. It's a great sadness, because as Rémy Vincent puts it so well, language is an essential element in the transmission of culture.  


However, the Grand Chief explained that revitalization efforts had been underway for several years to create new Wendat speakers. 


As teacher Marcel Godbout, who was one of the first to teach Wendat at Wendake's Wahta' elementary school, puts it, this "sleeping language" is coming back to life. It is now taught at CPE Orak (kindergarten) and to adults too.  


"The children learn quickly and are proud," he stresses, adding that elders who learn Wendat also help inspire other family members to get involved and contribute to the effort. 


This is a unique case in Canada of the revitalization of a sleeping language. If it can be revitalized, it's thanks to a sufficient number of documents containing a wealth of vocabulary.  


"Most of the material comes from the Jesuits and Recollets, who had to learn our language to evangelize us at the time, so they had documented the vocabulary in a dozen manuscripts and grammars," says Godbout.  


The initiative can count on senior linguist Megan Lukaniec, from the Huron-Wendat community, who has just completed her doctorate in linguistics. In particular, she is in charge of standardizing the words, as sound errors were made by the French fathers who transcribed the language. For a single word, it takes between four and 10 hours of work!  


The ultimate goal is to create as many Wendat speakers as possible.


Alarming situation  


This kind of initiative, to be applauded loud and clear, has the power to inspire hope and encourage efforts to safeguard other Indigenous languages.  


In Canada, for the first time since such data has been collected in 1991, in 2021 Statistics Canada noted a decrease in the number of Indigenous peoples who can speak an Indigenous language (-4.3%). It's worth noting that Quebec has the highest number of Indigenous languages’ speakers nationwide, although a similar decline has been observed.  


But even in Quebec, the situation of Indigenous languages is alarming. According to Professor Lynn Drapeau of the Université du Québec à Montréal, nine of the ten languages listed are still spoken.  


Still according to Statistics Canada, thousands of Quebec Indigenous peoples still speak Cree, Innu, Inuttitut, Atikamekw and Algonquin. But in the case of Micmac, Naskapi and Iroquoian languages, speakers number in the hundreds. Even fewer speak Maliseet and Abenaki.  


For a more accurate picture, it will be interesting to see the results of more extensive data collection, which will be available in 2024.


Local initiatives  


In Quebec, there was a period when researchers made a major contribution to raising awareness of Indigenous languages," explains Michelle Daveluy, a professor in the Anthropology Department at Université Laval, who has been working on Indigenous languages for several years.  


Now, we're refining our understanding of the differences," says the researcher, "and we're more in the era when the initiative is local, and government support really depends on the steps taken by the communities themselves.  


It would be inappropriate to impose the Quebec model on First Nations when it comes to protecting their languages. Once we realize that efforts to protect French have, at one time, had negative effects for many Indigenous peoples, we need to take a step back.  


With this in mind, we need to give the people concerned the space they need to get things done and set up safeguard mechanisms. Governments can then provide support. This is exactly what has been happening in Wendake since the early 2000s, since the initiative, as teacher Marcel Godbout points out, has benefited from subsidies from a federal research chair that has proved "an important source".


More initiatives 


Over the past few years in Quebec, many efforts have also been made to raise awareness not only of the language, but of Indigenous culture as a whole, and on a wider scale. Every initiative is to be applauded, and more is still needed.  


I personally had the pleasure of discovering singer-songwriter Shauit, who is from Maliotenam and sings mainly in Innu, opening for the Cowboys fringants at the Centre Vidéotron. We need to do more.  


Then, at school, children should be taught about Indigenous languages and culture, which are only just touched upon.  


This would certainly help young people understand why it's important to take care of their language and culture, and encourage greater openness towards others. In this day and age, we need this more than ever.

bottom of page