In order to support the preservation and revitalization of aboriginal languages in Canada, the Aboriginal Languages Initiative (ALI) was implemented in 1998 through the Department of Canadian Heritage.
The majority of Canada’s 86 aboriginal languages are endangered. Only Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut are considered to be viable within the next 100 years; for many traditional languages, only older parents and grandparents remain fluent speakers. Children and youth no longer learn their language as a mother tongue, but must acquire it as a second language – usually in school or through existing programs within their communities.
Funding for ALI was established at $5 million annually with funds being distributed between the three aboriginal groups in Canada; 75 percent goes to First Nations, 15 percent to the Inuit and 10 percent to the Métis. According to Department of Canadian Heritage media relations advisor Genevieve Myre funding for ALI was recently renewed through March 31, 2014.
Recipients use ALI funding to support a broad range of language revitalization and preservation efforts specific to each communities needs. Some of the more common ALI activities include documenting and archiving languages in the spoken and written form and developing learning materials for personal, community and classroom use; community language classes outside of a school environment for community members of any age and skill level; developing learning resources to assist people in learning languages in print, electronic or online formats; culture and language immersion camps using traditional activities such as berry picking, canoe making, fishing, camping, hunting, trapping, beading, dancing and drum making; master apprentice programs where a fluent speaker works one-on-one every day for months with an apprentice language learner who already has a good working knowledge of the language; and language nests where parents, babies and pre-school children meet for several hours a day with fluent speakers to work on traditional activities with conversation taking place in their traditional language.
Aboriginal communities identify the activities they feel would be most advantageous according to the state of health of their language within the community. Over the 12 years of ALI’s existence, a majority of Canada’s aboriginal languages have benefited from ALI funding, according to Myre.
Two of the projects funded this year are the Societe de communication Atikamekw-Montagnais (SOCAM) and the Secwepemc Cultural Educational Society (SCES). SOCAM is creating four animated children’s videos telling the adventures of a mythical character well known in Atikamekw-Montagnais communities. The videos, produced in Atikamekw and Innu, will be used to introduce viewers to vocabulary used in science and technology. The videos will be accessible to community members on the SOCAM website and DVD copies will be distributed to elementary schools in Atikamekw and Innu communities. SCES is using the funding to digitize its language tools and build an online language library. Virtual tours of traditional and contemporary Secwepemc sites will also be produced. Virtual tours will include descriptive audio in the Secwepemc language with English subtitles. The digital library and the virtual tours will be available on the SCES website.
ALI funded projects are expected to meet specific criteria in terms of feasibility, accountability and tangible results. Myre said that recent changes to ALI guidelines require communities to demonstrate a commitment to language revitalization, such that ALI funding becomes a catalyst to leverage other community language work instead of a one-time infusion of funding with no lasting impact.
Also, in response to a federal emphasis on value for money across all Canadian governmental programs, Myre said ALI funding has recently been moved to a fully competitive basis with all proposals receiving a high degree of scrutiny to help maximize the benefits of available language supports to the greatest number of aboriginal peoples.
ALI was created as one element of a general federal response to recommendations contained in the 1996 final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The federal response was titled Gathering Strength: Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan. Part 1 of Gathering Strength identified the building of a partnership with aboriginal peoples, other levels of government and the private sector as an important objective for the government of Canada. Aboriginal languages, culture and heritage were identified as key elements within the renewed partnership.
According to Myre, recent improvements to ALI include a new regional formula for the distribution of First Nations funding that correlates with the number of languages in each province. In addition, priority has been given to projects for children and youth using technology to attract and enhance language learning.
ALI is the primary source of community-based federal language funding used to support aboriginal language revitalization and preservation. On June 11, 2008 the Prime Minister of Canada made a statement of apology for Canada’s role in the Indian Residential School system and the negative impact it has had on aboriginal culture, heritage and languages.