In 2021, Statistics Canada reported that only 6,000 non-Indigenous people in Canada spoke an Indigenous language fluently. That pales in comparison to Aotearoa — the Māori-language name for New Zealand — where nearly 60,000 Pākehā (non-Māori people) could speak Te Reo Māori as of 2021 — nine times the number in Canada who spoke an Indigenous language, despite Aotearoa having a population over seven times smaller.

Of course, there are key differences between the two countries. In contrast to Canada’s over 70 Indigenous languages, Aotearoa has only one currently spoken by native speakers, with previously dormant ta rē Moriori currently being revived in the Chatham Islands. Additionally, Aotearoa has a proportionally larger Indigenous population — 17 per cent versus Canada’s five — and has been officially bilingual since 1987. The 1840 Te Tiriti, or the Treaty of Waitangi, also holds an important role as the country’s founding document, and has guaranteed the official state recognition of Māori language and culture, as an officially adopted biculturalism, since its conception. 

In other words, Pākehā have had far greater cultural and national reasons to learn Māori than non-Indigenous Canadians have had to learn Cree, Ojibwe, or Inuit languages. But could, or rather should, that change? 

In recent years, a majority of Canadians have come to the opinion that a third founding group of Canada, besides the British and the French, exists: Indigenous populations. Indeed, the Canadian government’s own website lists the founding peoples as Aboriginal, French, and English. Suppose countries recall their own national stories in the name of national unity and focus on contemporary issues and forging the future. In that case, it is welcome, even if overdue, that Indigenous contributions to Canadian society — as well as Canada’s history of cultural genocide, which the Canadian government has recognized — are being brought to the forefront.

However, this refocusing brings about linguistic issues. Canada officially became bilingual in 1969, acknowledging one of its ‘founding people’ as part of an attempt to stem growing francophone political discontent. Given the previously prominent standing of Indigenous people in society and the growing political imperative to incorporate these voices, how exactly do the various layers of government and society incorporate Indigenous languages?

With over 70 Indigenous languages currently spoken across the country, I believe it is possible to grant constitutional protection to these languages without having to expand official bilingualism beyond English and French. 

Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have four and 11 official languages, respectively, and the provinces and their municipalities may have better scope for recognizing particular Indigenous tongues.

In lieu of such impracticalities, it has been suggested that other institutions like universities demonstrate their commitment to Truth and Reconciliation by offering Indigenous language courses. These can be vital for preserving and revitalizing languages for Indigenous students, and the U of T currently offers introductory and 300-level classes in the Ojibwe language Anishinaabemowin and the Mohawk language Kanien’kéha. This academic year, a combined 21 students are taking the Anishinaabemowin classes and 13 students are taking the Kanien’kéha classes.

But should these courses be encouraged, or even mandated, for non-Indigenous students? After all, the campus operates on a mix of both land ceded by misleading treaties broken by the government as well as unceded territory. I believe we should welcome any initiatives, classes, and outreach programs that increase awareness and understanding of Indigenous cultures. 

However, simply learning a language, in and of itself, will not contribute much towards that process, any more than learning French from a textbook would imbue the pupil with a Gallic spirit. Ultimately, university resources and students’ time are scarce. The priority, first and foremost, for language lessons should surely be to empower Indigenous students to learn their inherited language and ensure an enriched and evolving culture. 

Beyond that, I want the student body as a whole to be permeated with a richer knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the history and contemporary experience of First Nations in and around Toronto. But simply providing more language courses does not seem to be the most efficient way to achieve that goal.

Language classes can and should be offered to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike, but it should form part of a wider package of educational opportunities that incorporates histories and cultures from the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River — just some of the First Nations whose traditional territory overlaps with what is now Toronto. These can be taught in the context of the larger and ongoing story of colonization on Turtle Island, but students should have the ability to engage, connect, and appreciate local Indigenous understandings of the specific territory on which U of T students learn and live.

As an international student, it is not for me to say what precisely should be prioritized for education. Official university bodies, student societies, as well as First Nations located in and around Toronto all have a role to play in policy formulation — that is, what are the most important aspects of Indigenous cultures, histories, politics, societies, and general modes of thinking about life that students must understand, and how they should be imparted onto the student body at large.

But the fact of the matter is that language learning becomes more difficult with age. If, as a society, we are serious about increasing uptake among the general population, then the focus should be on early learning, in concert with wider cultural education. 

Language learning plays an important role in cultural education as part of a wider, more holistic, more impactful process of learning as part of the ongoing process of Truth and Reconciliation. A knowledge of history, interaction with the landscape, and everything that comes under the catch-all term ‘culture’ would be far better starting points for a new university student.

Thomas Law is a first-year graduate student at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He is The Varsity’s Labour Correspondent and a senior editor of the Eurasiatique journal.