A parliamentary petition written by a Mi’kmaw woman is proposing that 60 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada be adopted as national official languages.
Jenna Robar, a 24-year-old holistic health coach living in Nova Scotia, submitted her proposal through the House of Commons website Feb. 28 calling on the federal government to “have each language recognized nationally, with implementations on regional and provincial levels.”
Robar is a member of Benoit First Nation in Newfoundland, a band not officially recognized by the federal government of which some members are also members of Qalipu First Nation.
In less than two weeks, Robar’s petition has gathered over 350 of the minimum 500 required signatures for her proposal to be presented to the House of Commons.
Robar, who speaks English, French and Spanish, said she was inspired to launch the petition after attending a youth conference this year. She focused on language because of the lack of resources available to learn the Mi’kmaw language in the Atlantic region.
“We don’t have a ton of Spanish speakers in Nova Scotia but we have tons of resources to learn Spanish here,” she said.
“That lit the fire within me to do more to revitalize Mi’kmaw.”
‘We need to come together’
Robar said she sought support from Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a non-Indigenous Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York, because she once lived in his riding and had worked with him on community projects.
Erskine-Smith said in an emailed statement that language is central to Canadians’ “sense of identity, community, and culture.”
“I sponsored Jenna’s petition because it rightly highlights the need to preserve and protect Indigenous languages,” he said.
If Robar’s petition surpasses 500 signatures, Erskine-Smith will present it in Parliament. The rules governing the House of Commons would require the government to respond within 45 days.
If her proposal is adopted, Robar said she recognizes the complexity of the work and resources it will take to give Indigenous languages an official designation in each province and territory across the country. She said she hopes her petition will draw attention to language initiatives already underway, and highlight the importance of language preservation.
Indigenous languages are already official languages in Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Ideas like broadcasting hockey in Indigenous languages are examples of how language can be central to efforts in reconciliation, Robar said.
“It would just enrich Canada’s culture and diversity within those nations, because [Canada is] many different nations and it’s time to recognize that,” she said.
“I think now more than ever we need to come together and realize the value of working together.”
Robar said she’s confident her proposal will find support in the House of Commons. She said she’s spoken to MPs, like Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, the NDP member for Nunavut, who are ready to back the initiative.
Jaime Battiste, the Liberal MP for Sydney-Victoria, is the first Mi’kmaw representative in the House of Commons. The law school graduate and member of Eskasoni First Nation in Nova Scotia used his first statement in the House of Commons to speak in the Mi’kmaw language.
“It’s always my hope that when I speak my language in committees or in the house, it gives a notion of creating space for that accommodation,” Battiste said.
“I’ll continue to make sure that we’re prioritizing language and anyone out there who’s also [promoting] Indigenous languages.”
Battiste was part of a provincial working group that examined how Mi’kmaw could be introduced as an official language in Nova Scotia. He said figuring out where, when and which Indigenous languages were to be used is a complex process on a national scale.
“Does that mean that we’re changing signs? Does that mean that everything written in the House needs to be in several different languages? I think it’s a great step in the direction that we need to go, but I think it’s possibly easier for the provincial [governments],” Battiste said.