Other Official Languages in Canada - LawNow Magazine

Other Official Languages in Canada

Canada is known around the world as an officially bilingual country. Federally, French and English share equal status as the “official languages.” The same is true in some of the provinces and territories. What is perhaps not known as widely (in southern Canada, at least) is that there are other official languages in two territories: Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.


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In Nunavut, the “Inuit Language” is an official language, along with English and French. Interestingly, which “Inuit Language” is official depends in which geographical area of the territory you are:

  • In the northeast (around Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay, and the Bathurst Inlet area), Iniunnaqtun is the official language.
  • Inuktitut is the official Inuit Language for the rest of the territory.
  • The government may declare both Iniunnaqtun and Inuktitut to be the official languages depending on the place and the purpose.

Declaring the local Inuit Language to be an official language makes sense when one considers that the population of Nunavut is overwhelmingly of Inuit descent (over 80%) though not all speak an Inuit Language. However, residents in many of the more remote, smaller and traditional communities often speak the local Inuit Language more than any other language.

The Northwest Territories

The Northwest Territories has the widest selection of official languages in Canada with eleven languages. In addition to English and French, nearly all of the Aboriginal languages used by sizable segments of the population have official status.

The nine other official languages of the Northwest Territories are:

  1. Chipewyan (spoken mainly in the south-eastern corner of the territory, in the areas of Fort Smith and Fort Resolution and westwards toward Hay River);
  2. Cree (spoken in the same regions as Chipewyan);
  3. South Slavey (spoken in the southern part of the territory from Hay River to Fort Liard);
  4. Tlicho (spoken in the area to the west of Yellowknife);
  5. North Slavey (spoken in the Sahtu region along the Mackenzie Valley and around Great Bear Lake);
  6. Gwich’in (spoken in the western part of the Mackenzie Delta, including the communities of Tsiigehtchic and Fort McPherson);
  7. Inuvialuktun (spoken in the western Arctic, around Tuktoyaktuk, Paulatuk and Sachs Harbour);
  8. Inuuinnaqtun (spoken in Uluhaktuk, and elsewhere in the Northwest Territories bordering the western edge of Nunavut); and
  9. Inuktitut (spoken mainly in the far Eastern Arctic in what used to be part of the Northwest Territories but is now Nunavut). According to the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, virtually all Inuktitut speakers in the Northwest Territories now live in Yellowknife itself.
Law vs. Practice

Because of their shared history – until 1999 Nunavut and the Northwest Territories were a single territory – the laws in the two territories are almost identical. In both territories, the official nature of the various languages means that all are legally equal when it comes to government agencies and institutions. Any of the official languages can be used in the legislatures. Translation services are provided for anyone who wants to observe, in person or through media.

In March 2019, the federal government introduced legislation to carry out most of the Commission’s recommendations concerning Aboriginal languages.Similarly, any of the official languages can be used in the courts, and interpreters will be provided as necessary. Laws or regulations are usually only published in English and French, although the government can direct for translation into any of the other official languages. In the Northwest Territories, the court is only required to issue its decisions in English or French (and sometimes in both). In Nunavut, an interested party may ask the court to provide a translation of a decision or order into the official language of their choice.

Both territories have Languages Commissioners whose role is to oversee and enforce respect for the language laws. The legislation in both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories set out legal options for individuals who feel their language rights are not being respected and honoured.

Despite the similarities between the two territories, the Nunavut language laws actually go further than those in the Northwest Territories in ensuring the local Indigenous languages are preserved and used. It is mandatory in Nunavut that government institutions use all of the official languages on signs and notices. Keep in mind that, at most, this means using four languages. Accommodating the official languages is somewhat easier in Nunavut than would be in the Northwest Territories. Signs and notices in the Northwest Territories would have to be displayed in 11 languages if the law was the same as in Nunavut. Instead, the Government of the Northwest Territories may communicate in an official language other than English or French where it considers the demand is high enough and where it is reasonable, in all of the circumstances, that services be available in that other language.

Perhaps, in the spirit of ensuring the survival of Indigenous languages, it is time for the Northwest Territories to adopt a more localized but mandatory approach (similar to that in Nunavut) in using its official languages. For example, only a couple of years ago the Government of the Northwest Territories spent a significant amount of public money to replace all of its English-only communications (signs, letterhead, business cards and so on) with bilingual English-French forms. The most public example of this was likely the signs in Territorial Parks, which now show French and English. However, roughly only three percent of the territory’s population is French. The government did not provide for signs to display the local Aboriginal language, even in the areas where residents speak the local Indigenous language more than French.

The Northwest Territories has the widest selection of official languages in Canada with eleven languages.In a May 2019 newspaper column, Norman Yakeleya, the National Chief of the Dene Nation and regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, noted that only two of the Northwest Territories’ eleven official language are given priority – English and French. The other nine are acknowledged as equal only in law but not in practice. When it comes to Territorial Park signs, he suggested that at least the local Indigenous language(s) should also be included.

In late 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision on Canada’s official languages. The Court confirmed that the government has a positive duty to implement and not interfere with the rights of French and English speakers, at least when it comes to contact with government agencies and institutions. In the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the territorial governments surely have a similar important duty where the Indigenous languages are also “official”.

Aboriginal Languages across Canada

Canada has recently started to seek reconciliation with its Aboriginal Peoples. An important part of the reconciliation process should be the preservation, and in some cases the revitalization, of the languages of our Indigenous communities.

It is mandatory in Nunavut that government institutions use all of the official languages on signs and notices.In its 2015 report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called upon the federal government to implement legislation to preserve and strengthen the use of Indigenous languages, including by funding appropriate programs to accomplish this objective. This suggestion is particularly meaningful when we consider that a central part of the residential schools program included forcing (sometimes using violent methods) Aboriginal children to stop speaking their own languages and to use only English or French. In March 2019, the federal government introduced legislation to carry out most of the Commission’s recommendations concerning Aboriginal languages.

The Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls went even further in its 2019 final report. It called for all governments to recognize (at least the local) Aboriginal languages as “official”, “with the same status, recognition and protection provided to French and English”.

We are now seeing more efforts of Aboriginal language revitalization and preservation:

  • Local Aboriginal communities are reclaiming their traditional names. As self-governance becomes more common, more communities are using their own languages for their internal political affairs and decision-making.
  • Across Canada, schools in both Aboriginal communities and larger municipalities are teaching more and more Indigenous languages.
  • There are courts in some provinces where the working language is the local Aboriginal tongue. For example, there is a “Cree Court” in Saskatchewan and a Mi’kmaq language court in Nova Scotia. And the Federal Court of Canada just announced in May 2019 that it will start translating some of its decisions into whatever Aboriginal language might be most relevant and appropriate in the circumstances.
  • In larger cities, such as Edmonton and Toronto, municipal governments are renaming, or giving dual names to, streets and highways in the Aboriginal language of the area.
  • Hockey Night in Canada recently produced its first Cree-language broadcast of a game. And in 2010, CBC broadcast a “Hockey Day in Canada” game in Inuktitut.

It is time for governments across Canada, at all levels, to be more proactive in promoting Aboriginal languages. The aim of past government policy was to extinguish Aboriginal languages. The only way to begin to repair the harm done is to now actively promote and encourage the rebirth and strengthening of the languages of Canada’s original founding peoples.


Charles Davison
Charles Davison is the Senior Criminal Defence Counsel with the Somba K’e office of the Legal Services Board in Yellowknife, N.W.T.

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