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March 31st is a day when First Nations celebrate the survival and richness of the 53 Aboriginal languages spoken in Canada. Mercredi calls it "scandalous" that these languages lack both constitutional recognition and legal protection, pointing out that they are unique to this country.
"For the first hundred years of Confederation, successive Canadian governments tried to destroy our languages and culture through systems such as the residential schools, where they were forbidden," says Mercredi. "Now we have a policy of genocide by neglect."
Unlike English, French or the so-called "heritage" languages, Aboriginal languages are not funded by a separate federal program. Classes and other language oriented activities must compete for funds within an increasingly tight education budget administrated by the Department of Indian Affairs. The result, according to studies carried out by the Languages and Literacy Secretariat of the Assembly of First Nations, is that Aboriginal language instructors are consistently underpaid, undertrained and unsupported.
Mercredi calls it a tribute to the resilience and determination of First Nations that their languages have survived such conditions. He notes, however, that several languages have fewer than ten fluent speakers left, and that the usage of most others has been declining. "All over the country, our people are waking up to the fact that their languages have been taken away from them. Now we want the federal and provincial governments to help us get them back."
The Assembly of First Nations is demanding recognition for Aboriginal languages equivalent to that for official language minorities. Mercredi believes that this would be an especially appropriate act for Canada in the International Year of the World's Indigenous People.
"Language rights are one of the principles on which this country is built. Even the United States has passed a law recognizing and supporting Aboriginal languages. It is simply unacceptable for Canada to continue a language policy.