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If it’s not introduced then, a cornerstone of Canada’s reconciliation efforts ‘runs the risk of not getting passed by the House of Commons and the Senate before the next federal election,’ says AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde.

AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde, pictured in an interview with The Hill Times’ editorial board in December, says he wants to ensure there’s enough time for consultation and involvement from all Indigenous groups in the creation of an Indigenous languages bill. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde says the Liberals should table legislation protecting and promoting Indigenous languages by this fall or risk not fulfilling a key promise that he considers to be a cornerstone of Canada’s reconciliation efforts.

“That’s our hope and our wish,” Mr. Bellegarde told The Hill Times , following an April 26 meeting of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC).

“If you don’t get that [bill] introduced before that fall time, it runs the risk of not getting passed by the House of Commons and the Senate before the next federal election.”

While the next general election isn’t scheduled until October 2019, Parliament would rise for the summer in June of that year and likely not sit again before the country goes to the polls.

Mr. Bellegarde, the leader of Canada’s largest Indigenous organization, appeared as a witness at the PROC meeting, which is studying the use of Indigenous languages in House proceedings. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN), among other Indigenous groups, has called on the federal government to increase funding and services to support Indigenous languages.

In the AFN’s list of policy priorities from the 2015 federal election, it supported the development of a national plan to revitalize and promote Indigenous languages and sought to work with the government on developing legislation consistent with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

In December 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) announced plans to co-develop with Indigenous groups an act to preserve, protect, and revitalize Indigenous languages. The Liberals had promised to provide new funding to help Indigenous communities promote and preserve their languages in the 2015 federal election.

Since June 2017, the Department of Canadian Heritage has held “engagement” meetings with the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and Métis National Council to discuss what a language bill could look like.

Mr. Bellegarde said regional discussions with local groups have already wrapped up and the principles developed from it are guiding the three groups currently meeting with Canadian Heritage officials on a weekly basis.

More than 70 Indigenous languages are spoken in Canada, although some are at risk of becoming extinct because of the small numbers of speakers and generations of assimilationist policies such as the residential school system.

According to the 2016 census, 15.6 per cent of the Indigenous population was able to conduct a conversation in an Indigenous language, down from 21.4 per cent in 2006.

Mr. Bellegarde said “things are progressing” in reaching a drafting stage, but a major concern is timing, given the limited number of sitting days before Parliament is expected to rise for the next election in June 2019. Several major bills were recently tabled in Parliament that could jam the procedural docket in future months, including on judicial reform and the environmental assessment process.

He said he wants to make sure there’s enough time for consultation and involvement from all Indigenous groups.

“We want to make sure we do it and do it right, but we don’t want this Indigenous languages bill to fall off the timeframe and radar,” he said.“That’s why we say September or October, that it should […]

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