News / Ottawa

Census shows Indigenous languages in the midst of an apparent comeback

More people are speaking them at home than claim them as mother tongue: Census

A Toronto project last year was using board games to teach Indigenous languages.

Eduardo Lima / Toronto Staff

A Toronto project last year was using board games to teach Indigenous languages.

Canada’s Indigenous languages may be seeing a recovery from the horrific damage done to them through residential schools, new census data indicates.

The data released Wednesday shows there are more people who speak Indigenous languages at home in Canada than people who recognize such a language as their mother tongue.

That data suggests that even people who didn’t grow up speaking an Indigenous language are learning it and bringing it home.

The difference is slight, with 228,770 people speaking an Indigenous language at home while 213,230 people recognize one as their mother tongue.

Jean-Pierre Corbeil, an assistant director focusing on languages at Statistics Canada, said the department believes it’s a reflection of the interest in keeping languages alive.

“More and more there is this interest in revitalizing these languages,” he said.

The contrast is more stark among children under 14: 44,000 of them have an Indigenous mother tongue, but 55,970 kids speak an Indigenous language at home.

Corbeil said he’s heard anecdotal stories about young people who previously needed interpretation at community events and are now able to get by without help.

He said we could be seeing the beginning of a restoration of these languages.

“This is positive news because we know historically with these languages, with the impact of residential schools, there was a real impact on the learning of these languages.”

One of the many negative impacts of residential schools was that young children taken away from their home reserves lost their Indigenous languages.The schools often banned students from speaking the languages during the school year.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had a number of recommendations on language including encouraging credit course at the university and high school level, adequate funding to help preserve languages and the creation of an Indigenous Language Commissioner.

Of the 228,770 people speaking Indigenous languages at home, 83,985 are speaking Cree, 39,025 are speaking Inuktitut and 21,800 are speaking Ojibway. These are the most popular Indigenous languages in the country.

The other most common languages include Obji-Cree, Dene, Innu, Mik’mag, Atikamekw, Blackfoot and Stoney.

The census tracks about 70 Indigenous languages in all.

More on