Indigenous languages are dying in Canada. Here’s how people are trying to save them

Melissa Daniels can remember the day she decided to ditch “colonial law” and return to her hometown in the North.

It was early 2015 and the Harvard-educated nurse-turned-lawyer was working for one of the top Aboriginal law firms in Canada, on a case for her Indigenous community, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, that would have slowed oil sands development on their traditional territory, but appeared to be losing.

Daniels was also working on a project with her First Nation, in the northern reaches of Alberta, that documented traditional laws by interviewing Elders to collect creation stories.

“Some people call them stories, some people call them myths, but really it’s about our laws and how they came to exist,” said Daniels, who relied on the help of translators. But she realized the picture she was getting was superficial.

“I was missing key pieces, and the reason why was that I didn’t know my language,” she recalled. “After that, I realized I needed to come home and learn my language to understand our laws and see how we apply them.”

Now back in her home community of Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, Daniels is focused on learning Denesuline — a set of dialects spoken by Dene across northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta and up to the east arm of Great Slave Lake. (Because most websites, including this one, cannot handle the characters found in Denesuline, all characters from that language have been anglicized.)

She represents a growing push towards revitalizing Indigenous languages in Canada — which although recognized in certain parts of the country and deemed “a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society”, are largely in decline. It’s something that has the ear of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who earlier this month said that restoring Indigenous languages is key to preventing youth suicides that have plagued some First Nations communities — though he stopped short of pledging to grant official federal status to those languages, like English and French.

Read more: Vice News

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