Ontario to allow Indigenous languages in legislature

Legislators in Ontario will now have the option to communicate in Indigenous languages when addressing the province’s legislature, marking a significant shift that acknowledges the primary languages of the region. Previously, lawmakers were required to use either English or French, but a recent amendment to a standing order now permits the use of any “Indigenous language spoken in Canada” when speaking to the speaker or the chamber.

Paul Calandra, the Ontario government house leader, initiated this amendment, which was approved through a vote. Sol Mamakwa, a member of the New Democratic party representing the Kiiwetinoong electoral district, shared his gratitude for this change, reflecting on his own experiences of being reprimanded for speaking Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin) in his youth. He emphasized the historical impact of colonial policies that suppressed Indigenous languages, leading to their decline.

Mamakwa’s sentiments echo widespread concern over the erosion of Indigenous languages across what is now Canada. Decades of government policies, including the traumatic legacy of residential schools, have contributed to the loss of linguistic diversity among Indigenous communities. Despite nearly 2 million Indigenous Canadians, only a fraction can speak their ancestral languages, with many of the 58 distinct Indigenous languages facing extinction.

While languages like Cree, Ojibwe, and Inuktitut still have a considerable number of speakers, others, like the Sechelt language, are teetering on the brink of disappearance. Mamakwa emphasized the significance of the rule change within the legislature, describing the previous requirement to speak English or French as a form of forced assimilation.

Under the new rule, legislators wishing to speak in an Indigenous language must notify the clerk in advance to arrange interpretation and translation services. Greg Rickford, Ontario’s minister of Indigenous affairs, hailed the change as an opportunity to honor and celebrate Canada’s foundational languages, expressing his personal connection to Ojibwe culture and language.

In Canada’s federal parliament, a similar rule change in 2019 allows lawmakers to address colleagues in Indigenous languages with prior notice. Mamakwa envisions his mother, who doesn’t speak English, attending Queen’s Park to hear him speak Anishinaabemowin once the change is fully implemented, viewing it as a momentous step forward for those who have been denied the right to speak their language.

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