Honouring Indigenous Languages Within Parliament

Article 2 / 9 , Vol 42 No. 2 (Summer)

Honouring Indigenous Languages Within Parliament

Canada has ‘two official’ languages, but neither one is one of the original languages of this land. As an Indigenous parliamentarian who speaks Cree, the author believed it was important to be able to make substantive statements in parliament in this language. This language informed the principle of his worldview and the worldview of some of his constituents. In 2017, the existing standing orders and policies of the House of Commons prevented his address in Cree from being translated to his fellow MPs. Despite receiving advice to use one of Canada’s two official languages, the author decided to continue with his speech as planned. Subsequently, he raised a prima facie  case that his rights as a parliamentarian had been violated and worked with the Regulations Committee (PROC) to change the standing orders. In this article, he explains his thoughts about this issue and reveals how he came to a decision to challenge the status quo in an effort to be true to himself and his people.

Robert-Falcon Ouellette, MP

When the great mystery breathed life into

creation, man and all animals were created.

When this occurred, there was treaty between

all living things – that they would live in a manner

which recognized their mutual sacrifice and benefits. To

make these treaties they communicated in a common

language and were reciprocally understood; the otter

could speak with the birds, the moose with fish and

man with all animals. To speak and to be understood is

central to treaty. It is central to the ideals of relationship.

After 153 years, the Canadian House of Commons

now allows for the translation of the original languages

of Canada. The ability to speak a language and be

understood is central to the ideals of democracy. If

we speak and no one is able to understand us then

we are effectively silenced and have no influence over

the manner in which others impact us or the ability to

influence others. There is no relationship.

Nemacomacuntik Tansai Nemeyatanye atawapamtikok.

These words have power. These words tell a story

and make a statement of values. It is a statement of

worldview. A worldview is the principles of a people; it

allows us to make sense of the world around us. We create

a community of traditions and customs from myths,

legends, stories, family, community and examples set

by communal leaders. A worldview allows a people

who self-identify to create a system of logic; it allows

objects to fit within a paradigm, generates behaviour

and helps a people to interpret their experiences. I start

almost all my speeches in parliament and in front of

large crowds with this simple phrase.

Robert-Falcon Ouellette before his speech on

January 28, 2019.

When I was first elected in 2015 I had a number of

objectives; a vision of what I would do as an MP. I

wanted to make a difference, to improve the lives of

my fellow citizens of Winnipeg, to have influence. I

also knew that I did not want to be catalogued as ‘just

that Indigenous guy’ or ‘just that Indigenous MP.’ I

thought long and hard about where and how I could

best have influence. I asked and was placed on the

finance committee. I wanted to advocate for all my

fellow citizens in Parliament, to be their voice. Not all

the citizens in Winnipeg Centre are Indigenous. We

have Filipino people, Muslims, environmentalists,

Mennonites, the homeless, poor people, the middle

class, activists and, yes, also Indigenous peoples.

This is my baggage. It was also the path to using my

language, the Cree language in Parliament. In 2017 there

was violence in a number of Indigenous communities

against Indigenous girls, and young women. I felt that

since I was a leader I needed to take a stand against

this violence and address the violence in a manner

that would be noticed. The only problem was that we

often hear from the political class that society should

stop violence, and among Indigenous peoples, stop the

lateral violence among our peoples. Elders, teachers,

politicians, and activists will frequently say ‘No to the

violence’, yet the violence continues.

I felt the way to reach young people would be to do

a speech in Cree, talk about the violence and our need

to be kind to each other, and renew our treaty within

our communities. I prepared my text, including an

English version. I called the Whips office and arranged

a moment to give the speech during Member’s

Statements before Question Period.

I was surprised to learn that even though I had

given the parliamentary interpretation services ample

warning and provided an English version of my text

there would be no interpretation services offered. The

standing orders and existing policies did not permit

the use of another language in the House of Commons.

I would be required to give my speech in English or

in French; I would need to use one of Canada’s two

‘official’ languages. The staff from the Whip’s office

contacted me and asked that I use English or French;

my staff asked that I use English or French. I feel I was

asked to use English and French because people were

afraid of what the reaction might be. I was told that the

Speaker would not allow me to finish my speech, as

it was against the rules. I was told that the opposition

would use this incident to play games in Parliament to

upset the government. I was told to speak white.

On the night of May 3, 2017, I lay awake in my

apartment thinking about what I should do. I

thought about the possible consequences of going

against the wishes of the Whip’s office. I had already

been punished with curtailed speaking rights in the

House and no travel with parliamentary committees

in the previous year for trying to represent my

citizens. By the morning, I prayed, smudged,

conducted a pipe ceremony and I thought about the

words of an Elder named George who said to me

when I was running for office that ‘My words are

my honour and my words are the people.’

On May 4, 2017 I started giving my speech in

Cree, I said:

anohcihkî nîswâw âcimowina kipêhtênaw

ita oskâya-iyiniw-iskwêwak ê-nipahihck

âhpô ê-kî-sôhki-wîsakatahohcik. êkosi

kî-itahkamikan mêkwâc ayisiyiniwak

ê-kanawâpahkêcik mîna ê-masinipihcikêcik.

êkosi tâpitaw kâ-âh-ispayik. kitanâkatawêyihtamahk

piko kâ-âh-isipamihitoyahk,

kiyânaw ayisiyiniw kâititoyahk.

niya niwîcikâpawîstên ôma

môswa-ayân atoskâtamâkêwin (Moose

Hide Campaign) êkwa ispayin tawihtamahk

ôma kah-kitimâkêhikiwina,

ta-kistêyimâyahkik kahkiyaw iskwêwak.

nikâwîsak, nisikosak, nitawêmâwak, nitânis,

mîna nitôtêmak miyosiwak; sôhkitêhêwak,

tah-tapêyimisowak, sâkihiwêwak,

kistêyimowak, tâpwêyihtâkosiwak, sôhkiatoskêwak.

kitakî-manâcihihcik, kitakîmanâcihikocik

oyasiwêwin, êkosi namôya

sêmâk kita-kitimahihcik, namôya sêmâk kanisiwanâcihihcik.

Recently in the Prairies, two high profile

violent events occurred where young

indigenous women were killed and severely

hurt. These events occurred while people

stood by and recorded these incidents. The

freedom of the violence calls into question our

own humanity. I am a supporter of the Moose

Hide Campaign and it is time that we raise

indigenous women above our current beliefs.

My aunts, cousins, daughter, and friends

are beautiful. They are courageous, humble,

intelligent, loving, respectful, honest, hardworking.

They deserve additional protection

of our laws so people think twice before they

destroy lives.

It was one of the hardest moments in my life. I

would leave the translation and interpretation up

to the creator; I had no control over others, only my

actions. As I gave my speech in Cree I could hear my

fellow MPs laughing. They were expecting a speech in

English or French, so they were naturally wondering

what I was talking about. It was a very serious topic

and it deserved attention. After I spoke, I was asked

by my good colleagues what I had said, as no one had

understood. I questioned later if I had actually spoken;

if the words which left my mouth really mattered. I

was upset because the people of Winnipeg Centre and

Indigenous peoples from across Canada had not sent

me to Ottawa to be silent, but rather to ensure a different

voice was heard and to present a different worldview. I

had been silenced by the institution.

Later as I went about my weekend, my anger grew

towards the injustice. Other Elders had previously

asked me to ensure that our ceremonies would be in the

House of Commons, that our drum would be heard. Yet

my voice had been silenced. I felt that my parliamentary

privileges had been ignored and trampled upon. I

decided this needed to change, but I needed to use the

institution and make a point of privilege. I went to see

the Chief of Staff for the Whip, who then sent me to

the House Leader’s office. They preferred that I would

not make my point of privilege as they were having

difficult negotiations on legislation and they were afraid

it would derail important government legislation.

Every few days I would return and ask when I could

make my point. It should be remembered that points

of privilege must be made as soon as possible, closest

to the moment when a violation occurred. I persisted

and I kept asking and eventually, on June 8, 2017, I was

told I could make my case of prima facie. It was almost

a month later.

The institution of Parliament is formidable. Individual

MPs have very little weight; you must fight to be heard.

It is stressful because of the multiple roadblocks placed

in your path. Even the simple act of smudging in my

office has been a difficult effort; there have been many

back-and-forths between the Chief Fire Warden and

me. It is hard to be an MP and it is particularly hard

to be an Indigenous MP. There are great expectations

placed on your shoulders and you are placed within a

large institution which has its own worldview. It can

consume you. This battle in the House of Commons was

a basic human rights fight. It is harder than you think to

battle every day on a physical and emotional level. Yet,

here I am, and here the House of Commons still stands.

The institution has grown in stature through the effort

of reconciliation of worldviews.

When translation was eventually permitted for the

first time on January 28, 2019, I said in the media:

“This is something I’ve been fighting for now for two

years almost, and to have the opportunity of having

Indigenous languages translated I think is a significant

and very symbolic and important measure [towards]

including Indigenous Canadians; to tell Indigenous

Canadians that they are full citizens.”

The rest is now part of the history of Canada. This case

led to a study by the Regulations (PROC) Committee

and the hard work by colleagues on all sides to change

the standing orders. It was not a battle that I undertook

alone. I would like to thank David Graham, a Jewish

MP from Quebec who never let the committee stop the

important work it was doing and MP Chris Bittle who

pushed our House Leader to ensure that parliamentary

procedure was respected and that the standing orders

were changed. A great thank you to Professor Karen

Drake for the arguments and writings which allowed

the case of prima facie to be made. On a personal note,

this has been a very proud moment in my life, but also

my most difficult. It is extremely stressful, pushing

against large institutions, feeling alone, and being the

point of the arrow.