A Quebec member of parliament has addressed Canada’s House of Commons in Mohawk, in what is believed to be the first time the indigenous language has been used officially in the legislature since it was established in 1867.
“I stand here to honour the Mohawk language and I pay my respects to their people.
Hopefully it will help to us to become better friends,” Marc Miller said at the start of Canada’s national aboriginal history month on Thursday.
“I also hope that we will hear the Mohawk language a lot more often here and that more Canadians will be proud to use it to speak to one another.”
Miller, a non-Indigenous politician from Quebec, has been studying Mohawk since the beginning of the year at a language program run by Six Nations of the Grand River, Canada’s largest reserve, located about an hour west of Toronto.
Miller, who is bilingual in English and French, said he decided to learn an indigenous language when he saw English-speaking colleagues in the Quebec caucus attempting to learn French.
But he was also motivated by the precarious state of Canada’s 60 or so indigenous languages.
“The elders will tell you that within a generation there will only be four or five [indigenous] languages that will survive if we don’t do anything,” he said.
“That stuck with me and I decided to learn a few words and see where it goes.”
“The symbolism is key,” he said, “but we have to do more. It’s important that we are respectful and knowledgeable about their language.”
Miller added that demand for indigenous language teaching is over-subscribed and underfunded in indigenous communities he has visited.
Of Canada’s 35 million people, about 213,000 describe an indigenous language as their mother tongue, according to 2011 census data.
The most common are Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut.
Other languages have been spoken in parliament before, including Cree. Last month, the Winnipeg MP Robert Falcon-Oullette – who is First Nation – addressed the House in the language, decrying a spate of violence against indigenous women in Manitoba – and also taking issue with the fact he had to interpret his own speech.
Falcon-Oullette said the lack of interpreters for indigenous language speakers amounted to an infringement of parliamentary rights.
“I couldn’t participate fully in the debates. Some were laughing.
I was silenced, when in fact what I was saying was quite serious.
I was using one of the original, founding languages of Canada … and we couldn’t talk to each other.”