• The Indigenous language discussion between National Chief Perry Bellegarde (centre) and Wade Davis (right), moderated by Charlene Bearhead, was held last night at 50 Sussex in Ottawa. (Photo: Ben Powless/Canadian Geographic)

“Language is your identity.”

So began remarks by Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, at an event with renowned anthropologist and author Wade Davis held Oct. 17 at 50 Sussex in Ottawa, located on the unceded territory of the Algonquin and Anishinabek Peoples.

“It is our worldview. It’s our essence. It’s who we are... Studies have shown that once you’re fluent in your language, you’re more successful in school and therefore more successful in life,” Bellegarde continued. “And bottom line is, we don't want the damn residential school system to win!”

The event, hosted by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society to mark 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, was moderated by Charlene Bearhead, head of education for the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, education lead for the Moose Hide Campaign and the RCGS' new director of reconciliation. Elder Annie St. George from the Kitigan Zibi First Nation began the evening with a formal welcome to the Algonquin Territories.

Around the world, Indigenous languages are being lost at an alarming rate and to the immense detriment of Indigenous peoples and their identities. In 2016, the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues found that more than 40 per cent of the world’s languages, the majority of which are spoken by Indigenous peoples, were in danger of disappearing. In Canada, there are more than 90 living Indigenous languages — but an astonishing three out of every four of these languages are considered endangered.

“To lose a language is to lose a branch on the tree of human knowledge,” said Davis during the discussion. “On average, every two weeks, somewhere, some Elder passes away and carries with him or her to the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. And this does not have to happen.”

The National Chief and Davis discussed the importance of preserving Indigenous languages, the benefits of the Indigenous Languages Act passed by Parliament on June 21, 2019 to recognize and support the preservation of Indigenous languages in Canada, and the hope they see in the next generation.

Watch the full conversation below, and read Wade Davis’ essay for Can Geo on why Indigenous languages matter.