Thank-you to professor Karen Drake who helped write this speech.
The full speech can be found at http://www.ourcommons.ca/Parliamentar…
This concerns the rights to be heard and understood in Canada’s original languages in Parliament.
Mr. Speaker, [Member spoke in Cree]
I rise on a point of privilege of prima facie.
[Member spoke in Cree and provided the following translation:]
I am proud to be here.
On May 4, 2017, I rose in the House of Commons to speak on important issues of violence being committed against indigenous women. In order to make a larger impact, it was felt that it would be appropriate to speak in nehiyo, or the Cree language. Even though I had provided documentation to the translation and interpretative services 48 hours prior to my speaking on May 4, 2017, they were unable to provide a time-appropriate translation during members’ statements under Standing Order 31.
It is my belief that my parliamentary privileges have been violated because I could not be understood by my fellow parliamentarians and Canadians viewing the proceedings, thus negating the debate and point that I wished to make. I was effectively silenced, and even though I had the floor and had been duly recognized, my speech was not translated, rendering me silent and thus violating the parliamentary privileges of all MPs present in this chamber. Imagine for an instance if a French Canadian spoke in the House but no translation and interpretative services were provided.
It is is my belief that parliamentarians have a constitutionally protected right to use indigenous languages in Parliament. Subsection 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 states:
The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.
Do language rights fall within these provisions?
Professor Karen Drake has written about indigenous language rights in Canada as pre-existing the Canadian state, and these rights have not been extinguished and are still present.
Others, like David Leitch and Lorena Fontaine, have been working towards launching a constitutional challenge, arguing that under subsection 35(1), the federal government has not only a negative obligation not to stifle aboriginal languages but a positive obligation to provide the resources necessary to revitalize those languages.
The latter claim is perhaps the most challenging, while the former is more straightforward. Though the test for establishing an aboriginal right under subsection 35(1) has ballooned into a labyrinth of steps, sub-steps, and sub-sub-steps, the core of the test has remained relatively consistent since the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Van der Peet:
…in order to be an aboriginal right an activity must be an element of a practice, custom or tradition integral to the distinctive culture of the aboriginal group claiming the right.
Many, including me, argue that indigenous languages easily meet this test. As Leitch puts it, “there is no more distinguishing feature of most cultures than their languages.”
Robert Falcon Ouellette