Currently, there are around 70 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada, falling into 12 separate language families. While in many places there has been decreased transmission of languages from one generation to the next, recognition of this has led to efforts by Indigenous peoples to revitalize and sustain their languages. Canada, and North America more generally, represent a highly complex linguistic region, with numerous languages and great linguistic diversity. Indigenous languages are spoken widely and are official languages in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, while the Yukon recognizes the significance of the Indigenous languages of the territory. On 5 February 2019, the Canadian government tabled the Indigenous Languages Act, which seeks to protect and revitalize Indigenous languages in Canada.1
In what follows, a summarized description of the indigenous language classifications in Canada is provided:
- Inuit Languages: Inuit are the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic. The word Inuit means “the people” in the Inuit language of Inuktut. The singular of Inuit is Inuk.2 Inuit, or the Arctic population, in Canada traditionally speak Inuktitut, of which there are many different dialects. However, because of improved travel opportunities and the development of Inuit-language radio and TV programming, language differences are diminishing. Traditionally, there was no written language, but after contact with missionaries, the Inuit widely adopted writing systems. In the 2011 census, 34,110 people reported Inuktitut as their mother tongue, with 63.1% of these residing in Nunavut and 32.3% in Québec. In the majority of communities in both Québec and Eastern Nunavut, over 90% of the population reported having Inuktitut as a first language. One exception is Iqaluit, which reported only 46.6%. Percentages were significantly lower in Labrador; for example, Nain reported 36% and Rigolet had only 5%.3
- Subarctic Languages: Most peoples of the Eastern Subarctic belong to the Algonquian language family, while those of the Western Subarctic are generally part of the Athapaskan family. Northern Subarctic Algonquians, including the Atikamekw and Innu of Québec and Labrador, speak Cree dialects, and Algonquians to the south speak Ojibwa dialects. The Beothuk of Newfoundland spoke a language of uncertain affinity. Linguists have identified more than 20 different Northern Dene languages within the Western Subarctic, including Alaska.4
- Northwest Coast languages: Though most Indigenous peoples of the region now speak English as a primary language, the Northwest Coast exhibits the most diversity in language of all the cultural areas in Canada. The languages spoken in this cultural area include Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian languages (such as Nisga’a and Gitksan), Wakashan languages (including Haisla, Heiltsuk, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nitinaht, and Nuu-chah-nulth), and Salish languages. Many of these languages and their dialects are critically endangered, with very few fluent speakers left. Various First Nations and educational institutions in British Columbia have made efforts to preserve and promote these Northwest Coast languages.5
- Plateau Languages: The linguistic families traditionally represented in the Plateau are the Dene (sometimes known as Athapaskan, Athapascan, Athabaskan, or Athabascan) and Salishan languages. Some subsidiary languages, like Nicola-Similkameen, are now extinct, while others are supported by a number of language programs and native speakers. The use of Dene or Athabascan as demonyms reflects the often arbitrary nature of indigenous cultural naming.6
- Plains Languages: Indigenous people in this area still speak a number of Plains languages. In the 2016 census, significant populations reported fluency in Cree, Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe), Siksikáí’powahsin (Blackfoot), and Stoney Nakoda. The Métis language, Michif, evolved from a mixture of French and Plains Cree, while a variant called Bungee (largely considered extinct) consists of a mixture of English, Scottish Gaelic, Ojibwe, and Cree. In 2016, 725 people reported Michif as their mother tongue. With less than 1,000 speakers, Michif is considered an endangered language. Language revitalization efforts are underway in some Métis communities.7
- Eastern Woodlands: Iroquoian languages belong to two branches, a southern one composed of Cherokee, and a northern branch that includes the Erie, Neutral, Wenro, Haudenosaunee, Wendat, Petun, and St. Lawrence Iroquoians. The languages of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, the Wendat, Petun, and Neutral are all extinct. Efforts are being made to bring back the Wendat language. The six Iroquoian languages spoken in Canada today (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) moved with their people from New York State after the American Revolution. These languages are still spoken today, but they are endangered. Within the Eastern Woodlands, there are two branches of the Algonquian family, Central Algonquian (Ojibwe, Odawa, Nipissing, and Algonquin) and Eastern Algonquian (Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, and Maliseet). Languages within each branch show a high degree of mutual intelligibility, with the Central Algonquian forming dialect chains.8
- Thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. 2021. Indigenous Languages in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-people-languages [Accessed 1 February 2021].
- Rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca. 2021. Inuit | Government of Canada. [online] Available at: https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1100100014187/1534785248701 [Accessed 1 February 2021].
- Thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. 2021. Arctic Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-people-arctic [Accessed 1 February 2021].
- Thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. 2021. Subarctic Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-people-subarctic [Accessed 1 February 2021].
- Thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. 2021. Northwest Coast Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-people-northwest-coast [Accessed 1 February 2021].
- Thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. 2021. Plateau Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-people-plateau [Accessed 1 February 2021].
- Thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. 2021. Plains Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-people-plains [Accessed 1 February 2021].
- Thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. 2021. Eastern Woodlands Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-people-eastern-woodlands [Accessed 1 February 2021].