Canada’s Act Respecting Indigenous Languages
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Canada’s Act Respecting Indigenous Languages

Assembly of First Nations

In Canada, Bill C-91, an Act Respecting Indigenous languages, became law on June 21, 2019. The legislation was co-developed by the Department of Canadian Heritage and the three national Indigenous organizations: the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) and the Métis Nation of Canada (MNC). First Peoples’ Cultural Council actively supported the development of the Act through the facilitation of engagement with B.C. First Nations, advocacy with the two Ministers of Heritage and the department, participation on the AFN’s Technical Committee on Language and presentations to the parliamentary and senate committees reviewing the bill.

The Act Respecting Indigenous Languages commits the Government of Canada to supporting and funding Indigenous-led language reclamation, revitalization, maintenance and strengthening activities. It recognizes and reaffirms Indigenous language rights as inherent, Constitutional (Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982), and international human rights, via the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP, 2007), endorsed by Canada in 2016.

The Act responds to years of First Nations advocacy, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action 13, 14, and 15. Under the Act, the support and funding provided by the Government of Canada will be reviewed on an annual basis by a new Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages. The Act itself will undergo Parliamentary review every three years. The Act will also be independently reviewed every five years, in consultation with Indigenous Peoples.

General background

Language allows us to share and communicate culture, world views, knowledge systems, values, traditions, customs, history, spirituality, and social and political identity to future generations. First Nations languages are integral to our sense of self and a key aspect of self-determination. Despite their importance, all Indigenous languages in Canada are in danger of disappearing. Over generations, assimilative policies and practices have had a significant impact on language loss and the disruption of the intergenerational transmission of First Nations languages and cultures.

There is grave urgency to develop fluency in First Nations languages. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that three-quarters of Indigenous languages in Canada are “definitely”, “severely” or “critically” endangered. In Canada’s 2016 Census of Population, only 20% of First Nations people could converse in an Indigenous language, down almost 6 percentage points from 2006. If we continue down the current path, First Nations languages, like many Indigenous languages around the world, may be lost. It is essential that drastic actions are taken to offset the erosion and loss of First Nations languages.

There has also been a general growing interest in Indigenous languages in Canada over the past several decades. Language revitalization is now on the government’s legislative and policy agenda. Nanos Research conducted a survey for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in February 2017 and found that about 74% of Canadians supported or somewhat supported the creation on an Indigenous Languages Act. Respondents also linked the value of language as important to culture and identity.

Further, examples of successful Indigenous language revitalization are emerging across the globe, such as in the revitalization of Te Reo Māori, Hawai’ian, Scots Gaelic, and Welsh. Some dormant languages have also become living languages again, including Wampanoag, Myaamia, and Hebrew. These examples provide some best practices that can be drawn from in planning for the reclamation, revitalization, maintenance, and strengthening of Indigenous languages in Canada, while respecting the unique situation of each First Nations language.

Why is legislation important for First Nations languages?

In 1998, a state of emergency on First Nations languages was declared by the Chiefs-in-Assembly through Resolution 35/1998, First Nation Languages, highlighting the central role of language to First Nations culture and the urgent need to reverse further language loss and degradation. The 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the 2005 Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Culture’s “Towards a New Beginning” report are both historic documents calling for action in the recognition of the importance of Indigenous languages. First Nations languages are inherent, treaty and constitutional rights (Section 35, Constitution Act, 1982).

Language has been affirmed as a fundamental international human right by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which puts binding treaty obligations on Canada as a signatory. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples contains specific articles on Indigenous languages. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action also includes a number of calls (13, 14, and 15) directly related to languages.

The Government of Canada has formally endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and committed to the implementation of the TRC Calls to Action. Various other international legal instruments support these rights, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights.

These existing languages rights have been long ignored, and must be actively recognized and protected in law to secure their survival and revival. Legislation is considered one of the required elements for successful language resurgence, along with effective language policies, good language education practices, adequate and sustainable funding, and community mobilization.1 Legislative recognition puts requirements on the federal government to provide funding with the goal of preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages and restoring fluency.

The AFN Closing the Gap document (2015) also called for significant investments toward the revitalization of Indigenous languages, as significant funding and support is necessary for successful revitalization efforts.

Legislation also helps ensure that the availability of funding is not completely dependent on the current government. This is essential for continuous action and sufficient, predictable, sustainable funding that supports long-term language planning.

Recognition, affirmation, protection

Legal recognition in federal legislation will raise the status of Indigenous languages, as seen with Indigenous or minority languages in other jurisdictions at either the provincial/regional or national level both in Canada and abroad. For example, greater awareness and knowledge about Indigenous languages can increase both support (including promotional efforts by the government) and respect for the language itself (as seen in New Zealand, Hawaii, South Africa and others). Recognizing, affirming, protecting and implementing First Nations linguistic rights is an essential piece to ensuring the revival of the First Languages of these lands.

In response to international and national legal instruments – as well as decades of First Nations advocacy – the AFN, ITK, MNC and PCH2 initiated a co-development process for Indigenous languages legislation to protect and revitalize Indigenous languages in Canada. The Act has been drafted in such a way that it further commits the Government of Canada to implementing the UN Declaration and the TRC Calls to Action. The federal government agreed to take action to implement both of these instruments and the Act strengthens the obligation to act on these commitments. The Act also recognizes and affirms Indigenous language rights as Section 35, Constitution Act, 1982 rights.

Together, these legal instruments, among other international treaties and agreements provide a base for the protection and revitalization of First Nations languages. The Act builds on these foundational pieces to ensure support and adequate, sustainable and long-term funding to meet the goal of reclaiming, revitalizing, maintaining, and strengthening First Nations languages.

Self-determination and traditional knowledge

Restoring fluency and the active use of First Nations languages is vital to cultural continuity and a fundamental part of self-determination. Language is key to transmitting traditional knowledge across generations. Traditional wisdom is passed on through stories and through the very structure of First Nations languages. For example, critical environmental knowledge on animals, plants, and their medicinal uses, is passed on through creation stories and ceremonies expressed in our languages. Consider how a single word for animals, plants, or place names tells a history and experience that would otherwise been unknown.

Language is intimately tied to culture and the transmission of traditional knowledge, including spirituality, values, history, identity, and world views. Studies show that cultural continuity is a determinant of health.3 Further, First Nations with a strong sense of cultural and linguistic identity have better socio-economic outcomes. For example, language education and fluency has been found to result in improved education outcomes. These impacts are essential to closing the gap for First Nations of all ages. The recognition of Indigenous culture and language in legislation can play an important role in improving education, employment, health outcomes, and the overall well-being of First Nations people.

The importance of language and culture is known to, and respected by, many of our First Nations youth. First Nations youth are taking steps to reclaim and revitalize their languages. Despite significant barriers to learning, the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health (NCCAH, 2016) found that a clear majority of First Nations youth – living in self-governing nations, on-reserve, and off-reserve – are interested in participating in cultural and language programming.

Understanding the Act Respecting Indigenous Languages

The purpose of Bill C-91 is to enable the exercise of Indigenous language rights. The Act creates legal assurance for adequate, sustainable, and long-term funding and support for Indigenous-led initiatives to reclaim, revitalize, maintain, and strengthen Indigenous languages.

What does this mean? The Act supports you in your language initiatives with the ultimate aim of restoring fluency and ensuring First Nations languages remain living languages. Legislation, used as a tool by First Nations for language revitalization, can advance the rights, needs, and interests of First Nations with respect to languages, cultures, traditions and knowledge systems.

  • The Act affirms and recognizes Indigenous language rights as included in Section 35, Constitution Act, 1982.
  • In the preamble – and in the purpose – the Act commits to contributing to the implementation of the UN Declaration, as it relates to Indigenous languages, advances international standards in the protection and exercise of Indigenous language rights, including protecting traditional knowledge intellectual property, providing education, and establishing media – in Indigenous languages.
  • The Act also further commits the federal government to implementing the TRC Calls to Action 13, 14, and 15.
  • The Act advances the status and vitality of Indigenous languages in Canada through the affirmation of Indigenous language rights and by strengthening Ministerial responsibilities, duties and functions with respect to the reclamation, revitalization, maintenance, and strengthening of Indigenous languages.
  • The Act recognizes that Indigenous languages played a significant role in the establishment of Indigenous-European relations.
  • The Act acknowledges the contribution of discriminatory and assimilative policies, such as residential schools, forced relocation, and the Sixties Scoop in eroding Indigenous languages.
  • The Act acknowledges that Indigenous languages are fundamental to Indigenous identities, cultures, spirituality, relationships to the land, world views and self-determination.
  • The Act recognizes the Government of Canada’s role in supporting the work of existing Indigenous-led entities with a mandate for Indigenous language reclamation, revitalization, maintenance, and strengthening – and supporting the establishment of such entities, where desired, if they do not exist.
  • The Act acknowledges that the control and initiative to lead Indigenous language reclamation, revitalization, maintenance, and strengthening is best placed in the hands of Indigenous Peoples.
  • The Act establishes the Government of Canada’s commitment to consulting with Indigenous governments and Indigenous governing bodies to facilitate the provision of adequate, sustainable and long-term funding for the reclamation, revitalization, maintenance and strengthening of Indigenous languages.
  • The Act highlights that federal institutions or its agency or mandatary may provide access to services in an Indigenous language if they have the capacity and there is sufficient demand.
  • The Act establishes an independent Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages that will champion and support language revitalization and review and report on Canada’s compliance to its obligations under the Act, including funding.
  • The Act acknowledges that the primary work and activity regarding revitalization and strengthening Indigenous languages belongs in the communities.
  • The Act acknowledges the need for access to interpreters and translated government documents. Interpretation and translation will be provided by the Government of Canada, where it is considered warranted or appropriate. The provision of translation and interpretation services, including processes for requests and quality, will be further discussed on a co-development basis.
  • The Act facilitates First Nations governments, governing bodies, or entities to enter into agreements or arrangements with all levels of government to reclaim, revitalize, maintain, and strengthen their ancestral languages.

Source: A Guide to An Act respecting Indigenous languages: A Tool for First Nations Language Revitalization 2019-2020. Assembly of First Nations.


1. Galley, et al., 2017.

2. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) and the Métis Nation of Canada (MNC), Department of Canadian Heritage/Patrimoine canadien (PCH).

3. Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. (1998). Cultural Continuity as a Hedge against Suicide in Canada’s First Nations. Transcultural Psychiatry, 35(2), 191–219.

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