Official versus Endangered Languages of Canada

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jan 26 15:28:21 UTC 2007

Official versus Endangered Languages of Canada

This fascinating post has been copied from Language Log. After reading it,
I am sadly torn between the official status of French and the precarious
state of our Amerindian languages: It hasn't attracted much attention
farther south, but there is linguistic turmoil in the Northwest
Territories. The problem is French, which along with Cree, Dene Suline
(Chippewyan), Dogrib, English, Gwich'in, Inuktitut, and Slave, is an
official language. (You can see samples of all eight official languages

The problem is that English and French are the two national languages of
Canada but that they have very different status in the Northwest
Territories. As in most of Canada outside of Quebec and New Brunswick, not
very many people speak French in the NWT. The territorial government
estimates that approximately 900 of the 41,861 people in the NWT have
French as their first language. l'Aquilon, the French-language newspaper
of the Northwest Territories refers to 1100 francophones. So francophones
are about 2% of the population.

On the other hand, there are significant numbers of speakers of native
languages: 185 of Cree, 2,600 of Dogrib, 700 of Gwich'in, 790 of
Inuktitut, 2,200 of Slave, and 3,000 of Dene Souline. As a result, not
only does French play second fiddle to English as it does in most of
Canada, but from the local point of view, the priority of French is below
that of the native languages as well. The Northwest Territories is
unusually supportive of its native languages. There is an Official
Languages Act (versions in a variety of formats are available here.) and a
territorial Languages Commissioner to see to its implementation, whose
activities are described in its Annual Report of the Office of the
Languages Commissioner - 2001.

In 2001 the Federation Franco-Tenoise*, the organization of francophones
in the Northwest Territories, filed a lawsuit claiming that their
linguistic rights were being violated. The territorial government not
surprisingly responded that French speakers should not expect too much
since there are so few of them. The francophones won. The decision of the
Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories is reported here in English and
here in French. Here is the actual ruling. The court issued the following
orders to the territorial government:

Within one year, it must draft a comprehensive implementation plan for
providing French-language services in all government institutions,
especially those that offer service to the public.

The plan must provide for audits of services, creation of bilingual
positions in government, especially in service points to the public.

There must be systematic recruitment of francophone personnel in health
area, including physicians, nurses, technicians and pharmacists.

Public notices published in English newspapers must also be published in
the local French newspaper, l'Aquilon, or an equivalent.

Within six months, Hansard must also be published in French.

These things are easier said than done. The territorial government says
that it has great difficulty hiring skilled personnel such as nurses even
without the added requirement of ability to speak French. It was not able
to arrange for the translation of the Hansard, the record of debates in
the territorial legislature, into French, within six months, so
publication has been suspended for fear that continuing to publish it only
in English would violate the court's order.

This is a difficult situation. While I sympathize with the desire of
francophones to maintain their language outside of Quebec, it is clearly
the aboriginal languages that deserve pride of place, both because they
are native and because, unlike French, they are endangered.

* Even native French speakers probably don't recognize the adjective
Tenois (sometimes spelled TeNois) in the name of the plaintiff
organization. It is a neologism used only in Canadian French, derived from
Territoires du Nord-Ouest and means "of or pertaining to the Northwest


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