December 09, 2006

Linguistic Turmoil in the Northwest Territories

It hasn't attracted much attention farther south, but there is linguistic turmoil in the Northwest Territories. The problem is French, which along with Cree, Dene Suline (Chippewyan), Dogrib, English, Gwich'in, Inuktitut, and Slave, is an official language. (You can see samples of all eight official languages here.)

The problem is that English and French are the two national languages of Canada but that they have very different status in the Northwest Territories. As in most of Canada outside of Québec and New Brunswick, not very many people speak French in the NWT. The territorial government estimates that approximately 900 of the 41,861 people in the NWT have French as their first language. l'Aquilon, the French-language newspaper of the Northwest Territories refers to 1100 francophones. So francophones are about 2% of the population.

On the other hand, there are significant numbers of speakers of native languages: 185 of Cree, 2,600 of Dogrib, 700 of Gwich'in, 790 of Inuktitut, 2,200 of Slave, and 3,000 of Dene Souline. As a result, not only does French play second fiddle to English as it does in most of Canada, but from the local point of view, the priority of French is below that of the native languages as well. The Northwest Territories is unusually supportive of its native languages. There is an Official Languages Act (versions in a variety of formats are available here.) and a territorial Languages Comissioner to see to its implementation, whose activities are described in its Annual Report of the Office of the Languages Commissioner - 2001.

In 2001 the Fédération Franco-Ténoise*, the organization of francophones in the Northwest Territories, filed a lawsuit claiming that their linguistic rights were being violated. The territorial government not surprisingly responded that French speakers should not expect too much since there are so few of them.

The francophones won. The decision of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories is reported here in English and here in French. Here is the actual ruling.

The court issued the following orders to the territorial government:

  • Within one year, it must draft a comprehensive implementation plan for providing French-language services in all government institutions, especially those that offer service to the public.
  • The plan must provide for audits of services, creation of bilingual positions in government, especially in service points to the public.
  • There must be systematic recruitment of francophone personnel in health area, including physicians, nurses, technicians and pharmacists.
  • Public notices published in English newspapers must also be published in the local French newspaper, l'Aquilon, or an equivalent.
  • Within six months, Hansard must also be published in French

These things are easier said than done. The territorial government says that it has great difficulty hiring skilled personnel such as nurses even without the added requirement of ability to speak French. It was not able to arrange for the translation of the Hansard, the record of debates in the territorial legislature, into French, within six months, so publication has been suspended for fear that continuing to publish it only in English would violate the court's order.

This is a difficult situation. While I sympathize with the desire of francophones to maintain their language outside of Québec, it is clearly the aboriginal languages that deserve pride of place, both because they are native and because, unlike French, they are endangered.

* Even native French speakers probably don't recognize the adjective Ténois (sometimes spelled TéNois) in the name of the plaintiff organization. It is a neologism used only in Canadian French, derived from rritoires du Nord-Ouest and means "of or pertaining to the Northwest Territories".

Posted by Bill Poser at December 9, 2006 06:41 PM