A bill that would require New Brunswick schools to teach Indigenous languages to all students has won unanimous support from a committee of MLAs.
Members from all four parties voted on Tuesday afternoon in favour of the bill, which was introduced last month by Green Party MLA Megan Mitton.
“There’s a long history of Indigenous languages being systematically excluded from our public school system,” Mitton said during the debate.
“This is an opportunity for the revitalization of Wabanaki languages in our public school system.”
The bill would add a requirement for the teaching of Indigenous languages to a section of the Education Act that already requires the teaching of Indigenous history and culture.
That section was adopted in 2017 through a bill by Green Party Leader David Coon.
Mitton said the goal was not to make all New Brunswick schoolchildren fluent in the languages but to “foster an understanding” about the languages.
Progressive Conservative, Liberal and People’s Alliance MLAs all spoke in favour of Mitton’s bill Tuesday afternoon. No one opposed it.
“This is all part of a very necessary process that this province and this country needs to undertake as we examine issues around systemic racism in our country and society,” said Education Minister Dominic Cardy..
“Clearly, in New Brunswick, our biggest challenge as a society is examining the serious issues that have affected our First Nations communities now for hundreds of years.”
Mitton said there are fewer than 100 Wolastoqey speakers and fewer than 200 who speak Mi’kmaq.
Last year the federal government passed an Indigenous Languages Act in response to calls from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages.
The law sets out a funding system for those languages.
Calls for inquiry
Mitton introduced her bill June 16, amid calls by First Nations chiefs for the Higgs government to establish an inquiry into how Indigenous people are treated by police and the justice system.
Those calls came after the death of two Indigenous people, Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi, in two separate shootings by police. Both incidents are being investigated by Quebec’s independent agency that reviews police shootings.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jake Stewart supports the idea of an inquiry but has yet to persuade Premier Blaine Higgs.
Cardy said Tuesday the language bill was “our opportunity as legislators to be part of moving toward some form of redress but also establishing some sort of foundation for a more harmonious relationship going into the future.”
He introduced an amendment to, as he put it, “broaden the scope” of Mitton’s bill.
It added the Passamaquoddy people to the existing section of the act and changed the word “Maliseet” to “Wolastoqiyik.”
It also changed the wording of a phrase that requires the province to “respond to the unique needs” of Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqi and Passamaquoddy children.
That section applies only to on-reserve schools run by the province under agreements with chiefs and band councils, but Cardy’s change means if the bill passes, it will apply to off-reserve Indigenous children as well.
Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson and People’s Alliance MLA Michelle Conroy both supported Mitton’s bill but asked how it will be implemented.
Mitton said the goal of her legislation wasn’t to prescribe a specific approach but to create a general requirement.
“The department would then need to work on the curriculum and on implementing, while doing consultation” with First Nations, she said. “There are different ways this could look.”