Canada's Original Think Tank

Second reading of Bill S-212, An Act for the advancement of the aboriginal languages of Canada and to recognize and respect aboriginal language rights

Second reading of Bill S-212, An Act for the advancement of the aboriginal languages of Canada and to recognize and respect aboriginal language rights

Second reading of Bill S-212, An Act for the advancement of the aboriginal languages of Canada and to recognize and respect aboriginal language rights

Second reading of Bill S-212, An Act for the advancement of the aboriginal languages of Canada and to recognize and respect aboriginal language rights

Published on 17 May 2016
Hansard and Statements by Senator Serge Joyal

Hon. Serge Joyal:

Honourable senators, I feel I have the stage alone this afternoon. I feel privileged to be introducing Bill S-212, An Act for the advancement of the aboriginal languages of Canada and to recognize and respect aboriginal language rights.

Honourable senators will know that recently we had the privilege of welcoming in our chamber the Honourable Senator Murray Sinclair. Senator Sinclair has something quite unusual in our chamber, unfortunately, not that he is the first Aboriginal senator — he has an illustrious predecessor with that status — but that he is the person to whom we are indebted to correct historical injustices that have been inflicted upon the Aboriginal peoples of Canada for a very long time.

Senator Sinclair has something in particular that is unique, and that is that he is one of the first Aboriginal people in Canada to be a judge. He was, in fact, Manitoba’s first Aboriginal judge. He was appointed Associate Chief Justice of the Provincial Court of Manitoba in 1988 and promoted to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba in January 2001.

In the course of his legal practice, preceding his appointment to the bench, he was known for his knowledge of Aboriginal legal issues. He has also been legal counsel for the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. It is an honour, honourable senators, to benefit from the support of Senator Sinclair for the bill I am introducing this afternoon for the third time in this chamber, An Act to recognize and promote the rights of Aboriginal peoples.

I am looking at our Aboriginal senators: Senator Lovelace Nicholas, Senator Patterson, who was here a minute ago, and Senator Dyck, who spoke before me this afternoon.

Honourable senators will know this bill is the third incarnation of an objective that is very fundamental. I’m privileged that we’re doing it in the Senate, the house of minorities in Parliament, and singularly the house of Aboriginal peoples in Parliament because, in fact, the Senate was the first chamber to welcome an Aboriginal parliamentarian due to the Right Honourable Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. The bust at the entrance to our Senate Chamber is in fact the first Aboriginal senator to sit in this place. We thank Prime Minister John Diefenbaker for that.

Having the Honourable Senator Sinclair as the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is thanks to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Honourable senators will remember that in this chamber in June 2008, we had the privilege of hosting the Aboriginal representative following the official apology presented by Prime Minister Harper in the House of Commons. That was in June 2008. Following that formal apology, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, also in June 2008.

The commission tabled its report in December 2015, and the final report in February 2016, so it’s very recent. The reason I mention it is because the report tabled by Senator Sinclair contains a whole piece dealing with language and culture. We find that in sections 13 to 17. I will quickly read a summary of the recommendations.

The first one is recommendation 13, which states:

We call upon the federal government to acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights.

I repeat: “Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights.” This is important. It stems from a decision of the Supreme Court in 2004.

In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests), concluded the following:

Put simply, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples were here when Europeans came, and were never conquered.

I repeat, “were never conquered.” That means they still enjoy the rights to their land, to their identity, to their culture and to their history.

If you have never been conquered, you have not theoretically been disturbed in the possession of your belongings and who you are. I can say that because French Canadians have been conquered. We were conquered through the Treaty of Paris. We were abandoned by France in 1763 through the Treaty of Paris, and it was only in 1774, 10 years later, that we were reinstated in our rights to practise our religion, to speak our language and to maintain our system of law. It’s only since then, since the Quebec Act of 1774, that we enjoy our rights of being who we are.

The Aboriginal peoples have never been conquered, but they suffer all the consequences of conquest. They have progressively been deprived of rights to their land since 1857. That was before Confederation. It was at the time of a united Canada. Then they were parked into reserves after Confederation through the Indian Act. They were deprived of their status as free Canadians. They could not vote and they could not own land unless they abandoned their identity.

It’s only recently voted in general elections, the middle of the 20th century. The Indian Act is still ruling the status of the Aboriginal people of Canada. I’m looking at Senator Nicholas Lovelace. She knows what it meant for Aboriginal women to live under the Indian Act. She fought the United Nations for that. We are still in the process of re-establishing the Aboriginal peoples in the rights to their identity. The rights to their identity mean the right to their languages.

That’s what Senator Sinclair wrote in section 13 of his recommendations.

The next recommendation that he put forward was this:

We call upon the federal government to enact an Aboriginal Languages Act that incorporates the following principles:

i. Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society . . . .

ii. Aboriginal language rights are reinforced by the Treaties.”

I repeat: “Aboriginal language rights are reinforced by the Treaties.”

In 1982, we entrenched the treaty rights in section 35 of the Constitution Act, so treaty rights include not only recognition of the possession of the lands, of the property of the land and its resources, but also the recognition of the Aboriginal identities.

That is recognized by the Royal Proclamation since 1763. The Royal Proclamation marks the definition of the status of Aboriginal people through the British Crown. We entrenched the Royal Proclamation also in 1982.

When Senator Sinclair mentioned in his report that Aboriginal language rights are reinforced by the treaties, he speaks of the nature of our constitutional law in Canada. Honourable senators, this is very important. It is at the heart of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the Canadian government endorsed finally on May 10 of this month, only a week ago.

The Minister of Justice and the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs were in New York to sign formally the recognition by Canada of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Before that, we recognized the UN declaration, but with a proviso of reserve. There were four countries that reserved their approval of the UN declaration. Canada was one of them. Last week we lifted that reserve and are now fully under the principle of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Under that declaration, Article 13 reads: “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their . . . languages . . . .”

Article 14 states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems. . . in their own languages . . . .”

Article 16: “Indigenous people have the right to establish their own media in their own languages and to have access to all forms of non-indigenous media without discrimination.”

It’s quite clear, honourable senators, that we’re now in a new era. We’ve turned the page. It’s a new era of challenge. It won’t be easy to re-establish Aboriginal language rights because there are 60 different Aboriginal languages spoken and grouped in 12 different families

As it is now, only three languages would have a chance to survive if nothing is done. I’m sure Honourable Senator Sinclair and Honourable Senator Dyck know them: Cree, Ojibwe and Inuktitut, the language of our friends Senator Watt and Senator Patterson. They are the only three Aboriginal groups who have a chance to see their languages survive in the years to come if we don’t take any initiative to support the languages of our Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

This is a very serious situation. We were the author of that turpitude by establishing the residential school system. The Aboriginal kids who were caught by the teacher speaking their languages, they were shamed in the corner of the class, had their mouths washed with soap, or were prevented from eating that evening. So how do you find pride when speaking your language when you are taught in your education system that speaking your original family language is in fact a sin against civilization — civilization being the value the Western world has accorded and interpreted under Western standards?

Honourable senators, we are gifted in Canada. We owe the diversity of the country to the Aboriginal peoples and to the effort they have spent through the centuries to try to maintain the flame of their identity in such an adversarial school system. I cannot imagine being sent to a residential school 800 kilometres from my hometown and being deprived of speaking French because that would be seen as another stated language in Canada. This is what they lived for 150 years.

The first thing I thought when I introduced the bill was to avoid its being interpreted as a colonial initiative. I wrote to each and every Aboriginal chief in Canada to ask them if they would be supportive of such an initiative. I’m pleased today to put on the record, and, with the concurrence of the Senate, to table those letters, the positions of the Aboriginal chiefs in Canada on the opportunity of this bill.

Chief Phil Fontaine, at the time National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, wrote: “You have my complete support regarding the introduction of an act for the advancement of the Aboriginal languages in Canada.”

Chief Mary Simon from the Inuit wrote in her letter: “I have taken an initial look at the bill, and I’m very supportive of its general purpose and direction.”

Our colleague Senator Sibbeston stood up two weeks ago when the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the full rights of Metis as an Aboriginal group. Mr. Clément Chartier, President of the Métis National Council, wrote to me: “I can assure you that such an initiative would be heartily supported by the Métis Nation.”

I have another letter from Mr. Ghislain Picard.

My colleagues from Quebec certainly know who Ghislain Picard is. He is the Chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador.

He wrote this to me: “I encourage you to pursue this legislation in the hopes that this time, the government may recognize the importance of our languages, that our languages, cultures and peoples deserve to be afforded the same protection and respect as French and English languages.”

I have other letters of support I would like added to the minutes of today. It’s up to us, honourable senators, to live up to the standards established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the leadership of Honourable Senator Murray Sinclair. I think that from now on Canada will never be the same.

Canada will have the pride of having re-established the recognition of the value of Aboriginal languages and the diversity of its people. It speaks to the strength of Canada to be able to accommodate, within its territory, different cultural diversity in sync with the objectives of freedom and democracy that mark the progress of this nation.

I am indebted to Senator Sinclair for agreeing to second the introduction of this bill because that’s the course to go. I hope the bill will soon go to the Aboriginal Committee of the Senate to be studied and hear from witnesses and those interested in the promotion and re-establishment of the rights of Aboriginal people to speak their languages with pride.

Thank you, honourable senators.