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Native Issues

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A reason to learn and preserve the language that is used in your community is to keep a culture alive, be unqiue and different from other cultures. Have a language to speak and some way of communicating back and forth with other people. The elders of our communities have used our language throughout their lives, they were forced to learn the English language, and now we should be forced to learn our native language. With no if and's or buts about it.

During the past 100 years or more, some 10 of Canada's once-flourishing Aboriginal languages have become extinct, and at least a dozen are on the brink.

As of 1996, only three out of 50 Aboriginal languages - Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway - had large enough populations to be considered truly secure from the threat of extinction in the long run. This is not surprising in light of the current situation. Of some 800,000 persons who claimed an Aboriginal identity in 1996, only 26% said an Aboriginal language was their mother tongue, and even fewer spoke it at home.

The 50 Aboriginal languages belong to 11 major language families - 10 First Nations and Inuktitut. Some of these families are large and strong, others small and vulnerable.

The three largest families together represent 93% of persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue. About 147,000 people have Algonquian as mother tongue, the family that includes Cree and Ojibway. Another 28,000 have Inuktitut, and 20,000 have Athapaskan. The remaining eight language families account for 7% of persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue, an indication of these languages' relative size.

Since a large base of speakers is among the essential factors to ensure long-term viability, the more speakers a language has, the better are its chances of survival. Inuktitut, Cree and Ojibway all boast more than 20,000 people with an Aboriginal mother tongue.

In contrast, endangered languages rarely have more than a few thousand speakers, and often they have only a few hundred. For instance, the two smallest and weakest language groups, Kutenai and Tlingit, have mother tongue populations of only 120 and 145 respectively.

Aboriginal languages underwent steady erosion between 1981 and 1996

Between 1981 and 1996, most Aboriginal languages experienced a steady erosion in linguistic vitality. Although the number of people reporting an Aboriginal mother tongue increased nearly 24% during the 15-year period, the number of those who spoke an Aboriginal language at home grew only 7%.

As a result, for every 100 people with an Aboriginal mother tongue, the number whose home language was most often an indigenous language declined from 76 in 1981 to 65 in 1996.


Note to readers

This report is based on an article in the publication Canadian social trends that explores which of Canada's Aboriginal languages are flourishing and which are in danger of disappearing.

The article examines the factors that differentiate viable languages from endangered ones. In addition, it compares language use and maintenance patterns between 1981 and 1996 to understand what happened to Aboriginal languages over the years, and what the future may hold for them.

The article uses data from the 1981 to 1996 censuses as well as the 1991 Aboriginal Peoples Survey. The 1996 Aboriginal identity population includes those people who reported identifying with at least one Aboriginal group, that is, North American Indian, MÐ'Ћtis or Inuit. In 1991 and in previous censuses, the Aboriginal population was defined using the ethnic origin question based primarily on ancestry. Because of changes in concepts and measures of the Aboriginal population over time, the time-series analysis from the census is restricted to language-based data only.


Endangered languages experienced the largest declines. For example, for every 100 individuals with Salish languages as a mother tongue, the number who used it at home fell from 35 in 1981 to only 12 by 1996. Tlingit and Kutenai had practically disappeared by the 1990s as languages most often spoken at home.

The use of Cree at home declined as well, but by considerably less than other languages. For every 100 individuals with Cree as a mother tongue,



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