Highlights of Ellen Gabriel’s intervention at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York


Helen Gabriel UNPFII 2015

Ellen Gabriel intervened this week at the 15th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. She began by highlighting the ongoing threat to Indigenous identity and self-determination in Canada through assimilationist policies, chronic under funding, racism, climate change and unsustainable development.

Speaking on the theme of Indigenous language preservation and revitalization, Ellen said current funding for Indigenous languages in Canada is $4 per Indigenous child, compared to $400 for every Canadian child to learn English and French. She stressed that the capacity of Indigenous communities to revitalize Indigenous languages is very limited, and only 3 out of 53 Indigenous languages are expected to survive. This would represent a huge loss to Indigenous culture and identity. Many of the most fluent language speakers are reaching their 80’s.

Ellen emphasized the urgent need for the Government of Canada to take quick and decisive action to support Indigenous language preservation and revitalization in Canada, in alignment with their stated goal of implementing the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Watch the complete session on UN web TV.  Ellen Gabriel’s intervention is 8 minutes long and starts at 2:25:00.

Read Ellen’s entire presentation including her specific recommendations to the Canadian government

Watkwanónwaron Katiohkhwa – I greet you all my relations.

[On behalf of the Kontinonhstats, the Mohawk Language Custodians Association from Kanehsatà:ke Mohawk Territory,] I want to address the urgent issue of threats to the survival and preservation of Indigenous languages.

Assimilative state laws and policies undermine the implementation of the UN Declaration through the continued attack upon the pillars of our identity and self determination, our languages and culture.

Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination encompass the essence of our identity our languages, culture, land, traditional forms of governance, health, and economic wellbeing and development

UNESCO has stated that “Indigenous languages are most threatened in Canada.”

Indigenous peoples language is more than a form of communication; it is the voice of the land, it connects us to the land, to our ancestors, our spirituality and is embedded with a richness of traditional knowledge nurturing biodiversity.

Within the core international human rights instruments the UN has, “… condemned colonialism and all practices of segregation and discrimination associated therewith, in whatever form and wherever they exist,”

Colonial laws of assimilation, including Canada’s Indian Residential School system justified the attack on Indigenous languages and constitutes an act of genocide.

Linguists have stated that a language can only survive if the children and youth are speaking their language. In spite of our best efforts in language revitalization many Indigenous languages in Canada are in decline. Only 3 of the 53 languages are expected to survive.

There are multiple factors for the continuous decline, the most critical factor is the neglectful underfunding of Indigenous languages: continued implementation of assimilation policies and the issue of racism, climate change and unsustainable development.

Land dispossession intensifies the loss of our languages through the loss of our relationship and connection with the land

While government-appointed language committees can be of help it is, the work done at the community level on language revitalization is most important to support.

Lack of implementation and respect for Indigenous peoples right to self-determination impacts [the most vulnerable group, – children who as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UNDRIP (Declaration) reinforces all children’s right to an education in their own language.

We are encouraged by Canada’s new government which has stated that they will implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, our communities can no longer wait for political rhetoric as time is of the essence as solutions to the problems are rooted in colonial Doctrines of Superiority requiring dialogue, reconciliation and restitution.

Indigenous communities are losing speakers at an alarming rate and that means the lost of traditional knowledge to transmit to this generation. Our fluent speaker teachers are as old as 80 and time is of the essence for the support of Indigenous language revitalization. Language revitalization remains marginalized

within many Indigenous communities that are already struggling to survive in a global world fixated on resource and energy development.

Inadequate funding for Indigenous languages amounts to $4 per Indigenous child as opposed to approximately $4,000 per Canadian child for Canada’s two official languages, English and French.

While we agree with many of the recommendations of the UNPFII Experts meeting on Indigenous languages, it must be understood that Indigenous communities’ human resource capacities are already strained. And so states must remain committed and accountable for the financial support needed in Indigenous language revitalization.

We recommend that:

  • interactive and proactive mechanism/process at the Permanent Forum Established to ensure an ongoing yearly focus on Indigenous languagesimmediate steps be taken by states to provide adequate financial support for Indigenous language revitalization
  • Financial support be based upon the needs of communities within the principles of Free Prior and Informed Consent
  • Implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples be the framework of Reconciliation and Restitution between states and Indigenous peoples in the process of Decolonization
  • Funding be provided for communities to have access to information and communications technology which can be a powerful tool for revitalizing indigenous languages
  • Indigenous languages and cultures be an integral part of early childhood development and education curriculum
  • Indigenous peoples have control over their own education systems based upon their languages, culture and belief system
  • Funds must be directly to Indigenous community language cultural centers and schools, without any middle agency and it must done to reflect the needs of the community and the urgency of the language.

States must also begin a public awareness campaign on anti-racism and education on decolonization in conjunction with Indigenous peoples.

Assimilation laws attacked the family unit, our languages, our cultures, our lands and our governance. It changed the mindset of Indigenous peoples through the children. Its goal and legacy is as linguist Andrea Bear Nicholas states, “killing the language without killing the speakers”

We respectfully submit to you, that Indigenous languages and culture must be [in concert] [included] within all aspects of self-determination.

Skén:nen – in peace


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