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Promote the Aboriginal cultures and languages

The Inuit and the First Nations are an integral part of Québec’s cultural landscape. They are building contemporary Québec and contributing to its cultural diversity and identity.

However, the hardships have been many and the after-effects persist. A society does not survive a concerted attempt to annihilate its culture without bearing significant consequences. In this respect, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada described at length the devastating effects of the boarding school system on the transmission of the basic underlying facets of the Aboriginal identity, such as language and culture. Torn at a very young age from their communities, the children had to attend for eight or nine years schools where they were socialized according to the model of white society and forced to internalize a foreign value system, prohibited from speaking their language, and even taught to scorn their own customs and to disdain their parents’ culture. The pressure, exerted on several generations, provoked the obliteration of identity and a genuine hiatus in the transmission of the Aboriginal cultures and languages.

Everyone now acknowledges the need to restore them to their rightful place. However, this approach must not only be carried out in the perspective of healing. The Aboriginal languages and cultures must also be promoted because in themselves they enrich Québec. To discover them is also to discover to what extent the First Nations and Inuit have a great deal to contribute to our collective heritage.

This action plan therefore proposes concrete support both for the Aboriginal cultures and languages.

Support the blossoming of the Aboriginal cultures

Despite prolonged attacks, the Aboriginal nations have maintained living, authentic cultures. Over time, the development of the cultures has certainly been inhibited or even sometimes compromised, but, when all is said and done, the historic record clearly shows that faced with adversity, Québec’s Aboriginal peoples have preserved a deep-seated determination to assert their difference and their diversity. The cultures of Québec’s First Peoples bear witness to a strength and diversity that have enabled to the Aboriginal peoples to create a way of seeing, an identity and values that constitute a powerful lever for the development of their communities.

Contrary to what some people think, the Aboriginal cultures are not vestiges of bygone days or a folkloric past that are out of step with the contemporary world. In many ways, the Aboriginal cultures reflect how Québec’s First Peoples now grasp the world, i.e. resolutely modern but deeply rooted in their traditions, sensitive to the attractions of urban environments, but solidly rooted in the fullness of the territory. Aboriginal poets, sculptors, painters, singers and performers from all fields today blend with broad sensitivity their experience of the modern environment and a traditional perspective of the world. The Aboriginal cultures have never been static. They mirror, in a manner of speaking, a dynamic collective experience.

The vitality of the Aboriginal cultures must not only be contemplated in terms of artistic creation. It must be said that they also express themselves in everyday customs and ancestral practices that reveal a distinct way of life and an especially varied relationship with nature.

We must now ensure that the Aboriginal cultures have the means to sustain their vitality.

Moreover, support for Aboriginal cultural development is the ideal tool to deal with numerous social problems linked to exclusion, poverty or isolation. The strengthening of cultures and their integration in communities are contributing to enhancing living environments. Indeed, a living, shared culture facilitates cohesion, dialogue, inclusion and the overall quality of social bonds.

Furthermore, it is, above all, through the influence of the Aboriginal cultures that it will be possible to significantly reverse the racism and discrimination in Québec of which the First Nations and Inuit are still the victims. Ignorance is the cornerstone of stereotypes. The dissemination of the Aboriginal cultures, their recognition and promotion are the foremost means of eliminating myths and generally accepted ideas that many non-natives continue to harbour.

To support the Aboriginal peoples in this cultural affirmation process and thus contribute to the rapid development of their communities, the Québec government does not intend to put forward a set model. The cultures of the 11 Aboriginal nations are unique and even if they have a great deal in common, they all display significant traits that must be acknowledged and promoted. To this end, the Québec government wishes to emphasize support that reflects each nation’s specific traits, in particular through the following measures:

  • support the communities to promote the emergence of cultural governance;
  • elaborate a strategy aimed at developing the Aboriginal heritage;
  • implement support measures in the handicrafts and arts and crafts sector;
  • financially support Aboriginal artists.

Strengthen the Aboriginal languages

Language, identity and culture are interrelated, all the more so in societies with oral traditions such as the First Nations and Inuit. Language is an expression of a shared experience of the world and is the instrument par excellence to transmit such experience. It is the first manifestation of the existence of a group and its presence in history.

The Aboriginal languages of Québec are divided into the Iroquoian, Algonquian and Eskimo-Aleut language families. Nine languages and their dialects are still spoken there: Inuktitut, Innu, Cree, Attikamek, Algonquin, Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, Naskapi and Abenaki. The linguistic status of the Aboriginal peoples varies considerably depending on the groups and nations, but three cases are usually observed: 1) the language is transmitted in a family setting and the speakers use it in their everyday activities; 2) it is the elders, above all, who master the language, which is not systematically transmitted in the family setting: 3) the language is dying out or only traces of it remain in written or sound documentation.1 It should also be noted that the Aboriginal languages generally display greater vitality in Québec than elsewhere in Canada. Accordingly, in relation to their fellow citizens in the other provinces, roughly twice as many Québec Aboriginal individuals still speak their mother tongue.2

Whatever may be inferred from this observation, there is no cause for rejoicing. It simply means that, in relation to the very alarming Canadian average, the linguistic status of the First Nations and Inuit is slightly less disturbing in Québec. Indeed, only 32.6% of Québec’s Aboriginal peoples still use their mother tongue in the family setting, while 59% only speak French or English.3 For several generations, the Aboriginal languages have experienced a decline that has put some of them in an extremely precarious state.

However, it is important to understand that the historic desire to assimilate the Aboriginal cultures and eradicate their languages does not alone explain this fragility.

Like most of the minority languages in the world, the Aboriginal languages suffer from the proximity of so-called dominant languages, i.e. languages spoken in communities that not only control political power and the economic levers but also make up an overwhelming majority of speakers. In this respect, the Inuit and the First Nations share the risks of almost all minority language speakers. A trend toward linguistic homogenization has always been observable the world over and at all times. Less frequently spoken languages retreat, obliterated by the implacable advance of more widely spoken languages, the mastery of which is often deemed more useful or more prestigious.

Such attrition unquestionably impoverishes the collective heritage. The disappearance of a language signals the disappearance of original perspectives of the world, ancestral knowledge, complete imaginative universes, entire systems of spirituality, and a different conception of history. Linguistic diversity is valuable and Québec must protect itself from the cultural weakening that the decline of the Aboriginal languages signifies.

It is incumbent upon each community and each nation to decide on the action to be taken to protect its language and promote its use. In the last analysis, the effectiveness of the defence and revitalization of the Aboriginal languages will always be measured in terms of the determination and efforts that the Inuit and the First Nations display. They will always be the sole masters of this perpetual project.

The Québec government is nevertheless aware that it can play an important role. It is, therefore, adopting the following measures:

  • elaborate and fund support programs for Aboriginal languages, including increased support for community radio stations, in collaboration with the relevant Aboriginal bodies;
  • establish with the federal government a dialogue in order to implement joint means to support Québec’s Aboriginal languages;
  • adopt a national declaration on the Aboriginal languages that affirms the specific place that such languages occupy in Québec.

This action plan therefore proposes a twofold approach in the realm of Aboriginal culture and languages.

First, the Québec government wishes to support the emergence in the Aboriginal communities of cultural governance, which must be implemented by and for the communities in order to contribute to their development, in a spirit of respect for their concerns and circumstances. The support, accompanied by concrete assistance for Aboriginal artists, seeks, in other words, to provide all of the communities with the resources and structures to enable them to plan and implement their own cultural development.

Second, the Québec government wishes to contribute to the blossoming of the languages of the First Nations and Inuit. Communities cannot be developed without a sustained effort to promote the Aboriginal languages, increase the number of speakers, and foster their use in the activities of daily living. This initiative depends, what is more, on the formal recognition of the contribution to Québec as a whole of the languages that the Inuit and the First Nations speak.

The Québec government’s initiatives can be summarized schematically as follows:

Promote the arboriginal cultures and languages
Foster the contribution of the First Nations and Inuit to Québec’s
cultural vitality
Promote the Aboriginal languages as an essential vector for the development of Aboriginal societies

1 Mention should be made of Wendat, deemed to be a dormant language, but that is subject to significant efforts to revitalize it.

2 See Lynn Drapeau, Les langues autochtones au Québec : un patrimoine en danger, Québec City: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2011, page 22. See also Statistics Canada, “Aboriginal languages in Canada,” 2011, page 3.

3 Alain Beaulieu, Stéphan Gervais and Martin Papillon, Les Autochtones et le Québec, des premiers contacts au Plan Nord, Montréal: Presses de l’Université Montréal, 2013, page 198.

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