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Aboriginal languages need protection, says Elias

The Yukon must begin preserving its aboriginal languages, said Darius Elias, the Liberal MLA from Old Crow.

The Yukon must begin preserving its aboriginal languages, said Darius Elias, the Liberal MLA from Old Crow.

“What are the practical and financial implications of a legislated Yukon Aboriginal Languages Protection Act?” said Elias, who last week put forward a motion in the legislature demanding the creation of a committee to study the possible extinction of aboriginal languages.

“The Gwich’in, the Han, the Kaska, the Tagish, the Tlingit, the Northern and Southern Tutchone, and the Upper Tanana are all in trouble,” he said. “And this warrants a thorough public discussion.”

“Why would we stand idly by and watch ancient languages perish?”

Yukoners aren’t facing serious questions about the future of those languages as their speakers dwindle, he said.

Should a Tlingit elder be able to receive medical attention in her native language? Is that practical?

Should the Alaska Highway include signs in Southern Tutchone? Is that worth the money?

What would the Yukon lose if an entire language disappeared from use?

These questions, and more, could be addressed by a non-partisan legislative committee that would study what could be feasible, he said.

“We have to be cost-conscious and efficient right off the bat because we don’t want to run into a situation where we have to do this a second time,” he said.

Both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories already have laws that protect their aboriginal languages.

The Yukon, despite its rich aboriginal heritage, is falling behind.

“Our public government should have a role in preserving our rich linguistic tapestry that exists in our territory,” said Elias.

Elias tabled his proposal in the Yukon legislature last week, and is waiting for a vote on the motion.

First Nations already provide some language services.

The Council of Yukon First Nations offers free lessons in Tlingit, Southern Tutchone and Northern Tutchone as a part of its Yukon Native Language Centre

And the current negotiations cover a program and service transfer agreement between Canada and First Nation self-governments that includes language preservation.

“(The committee) is going to complement both of those,” said Elias.

The committee should take “a couple of years” to do its job, he said.

If rushed, the Yukon could end up in a situation like the Northwest Territories,’ where its language protection act was so disliked it had to be reviewed.

The act needed to do a better job at tailoring language preservation for different First Nations, said Elias.

“There’s different service delivery models; there’s different regions,” he said. “One size doesn’t fit all.”

One community might want all government services, such as health care, justice and education, provided in an aboriginal language, said Elias. Others might only want heritage preservation programs.

The Yukon includes two aboriginal language families, Tlingit and Athabaskan. Athabaskan includes eight individual languages: Gwich’in, Han or Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Upper Tanana, Northern and Southern Tutchone, Tagish and Kaska.

Contact James Munson at