The Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) has taken a historic step toward revitalizing First Nations languages in the territory.
CYFN Grand Chief Peter Johnston and Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee announced Wednesday afternoon that the council is taking over full control of the Yukon Native Language Centre.
“It is a very great day for First Nations in general, not only here in the territory but across Canada, and it’s a great day for Canada,” Johnston said.
He called the shift a “bold move,” and likened it to the territorial government “passing over the keys to the car.
“We’ve been in the back seat long enough, and I think today is a great day for us,” he said.
The language centre, based out of Yukon College in Whitehorse, began in 1977 as the Yukon Native Language Project.
It was designed to preserve and document Yukon First Nation languages, educate teachers and support the development of language in the school system.
For more than 30 years, the centre was the joint responsibility of the CYFN and the territorial government.
Now that the centre is under full First Nations control, Johnston said, it will be better able to support citizens who want to learn their language at any level.
He noted that language has always been a priority for Yukon First Nations.
“It is our connection to our past, but it also is very important to our identity moving forward and for our younger generation, our future generation, the ones that are coming
behind us,” he said.
“I look forward to not only revitalizing our language, preserving our language for the next generation but beginning to build that fluency amongst our people.”
Johnston said they plan to redefine the priorities of the centre, including providing mobile services to the communities.
The CYFN also plans to soon fill the five staff positions at the centre previously held by Department of Education employees.
Restoring First Nations control and responsibility for the centre, McPhee said, will ensure its resources are co-ordinated to increase fluency, foster greater input from First Nations and strengthen its ability to support community-based language training programs.
She added the change is an important step toward reconciliation and in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action.
In residential schools across the country, McPhee noted, First Nations people were not allowed to speak, learn nor maintain their languages.
“This tragedy is part of the reason why fewer and fewer people speak First Nation languages here in the territory,” she said.
The CYFN will continue to receive $450,000 from the Yukon government for the centre’s operations, which includes funding toward the Yukon First Nations language teachers’ programs.
The territorial government also says it will continue to work closely with the council to deliver First Nations language programs in Yukon schools.
Yukon First Nations language teachers will be unaffected by the change, and training and certificate programs for Yukon First Nations language teacher trainees will continue.
“Today is a new day, and we’re very excited to see the possibilities and once the fluency starts coming back to our communities, it benefits everybody,” Johnston said.