Language is often recognized as the essence of a culture. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples has stated that the revitalization of traditional languages is a key component in the creation of healthy individuals and communities.1 Language is 'not only a means of communication, but a link which connects people with their past and grounds their social, emotional and spiritual vitality.'2 According to the 2001 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, two out of three First Nations people felt that keeping, learning or relearning their Aboriginal language was very or somewhat important.3
In both 2001 and 2006, about 29% of First Nations people who responded to the census said they could speak an Aboriginal language well enough to carry on a conversation.4 The figure was higher for First Nations people living on reserve (51%) than for those living off reserve (12%).
Only 1% of First Nations people spoke only an Aboriginal language, although this percentage rose to 5% among seniors aged 65 to 74, and 10% among those aged 75 and over. Of the on-reserve population, 18% of First Nations people aged 75 and over spoke only an Aboriginal language.
Fully one-half of First Nations seniors could converse in an Aboriginal language. About 50% of seniors aged 65 to 74 and 52% of those aged 75 and over could speak an Aboriginal language. In the on-reserve population, roughly four-fifths (83%) of First Nations seniors aged 75 and over spoke an Aboriginal language, compared with about one-quarter (24%) of their contemporaries living off reserve.
The ability to speak an ancestral language is one way of passing knowledge from one generation to another. The process of learning one's Aboriginal language may also contribute to increased self-esteem and well-being.5 In 2006, 21% of First Nations children aged 14 and under and 24% of youth aged 15 to 24 could carry on a conversation in their ancestral language, about the same shares as in 2001.
The ability to speak an Aboriginal language was again much more common among the on-reserve population. For example, 39% of children aged 14 and under living on reserve spoke an Aboriginal language, up slightly from 36% in 2001. In contrast, the proportion was 6% for First Nations children living off reserve, down slightly from 8% in 2001.
Table 23 Percentage of First Nations people who have knowledge of an Aboriginal language, by age groups, Canada, 2001 and 2006
The census recorded over 60 different Aboriginal languages spoken by First Nations people in Canada, grouped into distinct language families. These include Algonquian, Athapaskan, Siouan,6 Salish, Tsimshian, Wakashan, Iroquoian,7 Haida, Kutenai and Tlingit. The long term viability of some Algonquian languages, such as Cree and Ojibway, is considered to be more likely than other First Nation languages like Nisga'a and Haida due to a relatively large population base of speakers.8
The Aboriginal language spoken by the largest number of First Nations people is Cree. An estimated 87,285 could carry on a conversation in Cree, followed by 30,255 who could speak Ojibway, 12,435 who spoke Oji-Cree and 11,080 who spoke Montagnais-Naskapi.
In addition, an estimated 9,250 could carry on a conversation in Dene, 8,540 in Mi'kmaq, 6,285 in Siouan languages and 5,320 in Atikamekw. Around 4,760 were able to carry on a conversation in Blackfoot. Most of these languages are from the Algonquian family, except for the Siouan languages (Dakota and Sioux) and the Dene language from the Athapaskan family.
The number of First Nations people who speak their ancestral language has increased for most of the languages with large numbers of speakers. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of First Nations people who spoke Oji-Cree rose by 20%. The number of First Nations speakers increased 12% for Atikamekw, 10% for Blackfoot and Montagnais-Naskapi, and 8% for Dene. The number speaking Cree increased 7%.
The number of First Nations people who could carry on a conversation in Mi'kmaq was about the same in 2006 as in 2001.
However, there was a 2% decline in the number of First Nations people who could converse in Ojibway. Because Ojibway is spoken by such a large number of people, this translated into over 600 fewer First Nations Aboriginal language speakers between 2001 and 2006. Other languages with a decline of at least 30% included Haida (-31%), Tlingit (-30%) and Malecite (-30%).
Table 24 Aboriginal languages indicators for First Nations people, Canada, 2001 and 2006
One in four First Nations people (25%) reported that they had an Aboriginal mother tongue in 2006, about the same proportion as in 2001. However, more First Nations people could speak an Aboriginal language than reported an Aboriginal language as a mother tongue. This may be attributed to First Nations people who have learned an Aboriginal language as a second language.
For example, 76,460 First Nations people reported having Cree as a mother tongue in 2006, while 87,285 reported that they could converse in Cree. This means that about 12% of all First Nations people who spoke Cree in 2006 learned it as a second language.
The share of second language speakers was as high as 30% or 40% for some of the languages with very few First Nations speakers, such as Shuswap, which had 1,585 speakers, Tsimshian (590), and Tlingit (150). It was also quite high for Blackfoot (4,760 speakers) and Athapaskan languages not included elsewhere (1,530 speakers).