OTTAWA — A national Inuit organization says it is disappointed in the Liberals' new legislation meant to protect Indigenous languages.
The Liberals tabled the bill Tuesday, two years after promising a law to promote Indigenous languages, which Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said are on the verge of disappearing absent any intervention.
The bill pledges long-term funding and to create a federal commissioner of Indigenous languages.
While the Assembly of First Nations and Metis National Council are calling the bill a landmark piece of legislation, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami is calling the legislation a symbolic gesture from a "colonial system."
Natan Obed, ITK's president, said the Liberals' legislation lacks any Inuit-specific content and doesn't address Inuit rights to speak their traditional language, or help to revive and promote it.
"Despite being characterized as a reconciliation and co-development initiative, the Government of Canada engaged Inuit in bad faith throughout this legislative initiative," Obed said in a statement.
"ITK wanted nothing more than to truly co-develop a bill that we could champion with other Indigenous Peoples and the Government of Canada," he said. "In no way was this bill co-developed with Inuit."
The Indigenous Languages Act will now work its way through the legislative process with the goal of turning it into law before the House of Commons rises in June and an election campaign takes over federal politics.
The most recent census figures from Statistics Canada showed that 263,840 people reported being able to speak an Indigenous language in 2016.
The data also showed a two-decade decline in the percentage of Indigenous people able to speak an Indigenous language, going from 29 per cent in 1996 to 16 per cent in 2016.
Ahead of Tuesday's cabinet meeting, Rodriguez said in some cases, only a handful of people now speak a traditional language, meaning it could disappear in a matter of years. The government says that three out of four of the 90 different living Indigenous languages in Canada identified by the United Nations are endangered.
Many of the details of the law will continue to be worked out with Indigenous groups as Parliament considers it.
"We have to make sure first that what we do is flexible so they're able to adapt it to their own realities and second that they have all the mechanisms necessary to protect, preserve and revitalize," Rodriguez said.
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the "landmark legislation" introduced Tuesday gives hope that original languages will be preserved so Indigenous people can embrace their identities.
He said there would be no better way to mark the United Nations' International Year of Indigenous Languages than by passing a law to protect them in a country that once tried to wipe them out.
"No Indigenous language in Canada is safe. But now there is hope. This legislation will support First Nations efforts to keep their languages alive, vital and strong," he said.
"Canadians and all parliamentarians must support this bill because we all understand that language is identity, language is culture, language is life."
The Liberals' 2017 budget pledged $89.9 million over three years for Indigenous languages. The legislation, as written, calls on governments to ensure "adequate, sustainable and long-term funding" for Indigenous languages.
The bill also requires discussions with provinces and territories.
Obed questioned whether funding, as promised in the legislation, would materialize and ultimately help Inuit access government services in their traditional language.
"Our efforts to revitalize, maintain, and promote Inuktut are often blunted by inequitable federal funding policies that task us with doing much more with far fewer resources than what French and English speakers receive," Obed said.
"At the same time, our people do not have the right to access federal services in Inuktut, relegating it to a status beneath English and French."