The Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages (OCIL) jointly organized a side event with the Government of Canada (Canadian Heritage-Patrimoine canadien) during the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the UN Headquarters in New York.

Commissioner Ronald Ignace told a global assembly of Indigenous Peoples that Indigenous Peoples have the heart-felt desire to rescue their languages from the brink of extinction, and the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve this vital goal.

The April 16, 2024 side event was organized in the context of the International Decade for Indigenous Languages which began in 2022, and featured panel presentations by International Chief Wilton Littlechild (Cree); Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated President Aluki Kotierk (Inuk); independent language consultant Brielle Beaudin-Reimer (Red River Métis); and Sámi Parliament member Mikkel Eskii Mikkeslsen (Sámi).

OCIL Directors Joan Greyeyes and Georgina Liberty in the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations.

“This was the OCIL’s first chance to participate in the UN Permanent Forum, and we were humbled and thrilled to have so many delegates who chose to attend our side event,” said Director Georgina Liberty, who served as moderator for the panelists.

“The room was at full capacity. We had delegates from across Canada, as well as Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. It really has been an inspiring week all around, and we look forward to the Commission’s future participation at the Forum, to building relationships with global Indigenous leaders, and hopefully providing inspiration for (and learning from) Indigenous language experts and communities around the world.”

Commissioner Ronald Ignace and Director Joan Greyeyes address the assembled guests at the OCIL/Canada side event.


Commissioner Ronald Ignace (center) with event attendees.


Participants look on, including a representative from UNESCO Headquarters.

To open the event in a good way, International Chief Wilton Littlechild offered a prayer, and Elder Leena Evik lit the traditional Inuk oil lamp, the Qulliq.

Elder Evik, translating her own words from Inuktitut, referred to the deeper meaning of the Qulliq as “self-sufficiency, self-reliance, total resilience,” (all key requirements for Indigenous language revitalization).


Elder Leena Evik, President Aluki Kotierk, and OCIL Director Robert Watt.

Canadian Member of Parliament Taleeb Noormohamed, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, provided opening remarks in which he noted that it has been five years since Parliament adopted the Indigenous Languages Act, which established a legal obligation for the federal government to provide adequate, sustained funding for Indigenous languages.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Taleeb Noormohamed, M.P., offering remarks on Canada’s commitment to Indigenous language revitalization, including an announcement of new support for Indigenous content creation.

This was followed by a brief address on the history of the OCIL and its mission, delivered by Commissioner Ronald Ignace.  Director Joan Greyeyes presented the first screening of an OCIL-produced short film promoting Indigenous language revitalization efforts in Canada called, “Our Languages, Our Voices.”

Attendees included international delegates as well as Indigenous leaders from across Canada.

The four panelists emphasized the importance of language recovery efforts being designed and led by Indigenous Peoples. They also emphasized the important role of states in providing adequate, sustained funding to support this vital work.

Discussion panel: President Aluki Kotierk, Brielle Beaudin-Reimer, and Sámi Parliament member Mikkel Eskii Mikkeslsen (left to right).

“You have to think in your language,” said International Chief Wilton Littlechild, a lawyer, former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner, and Former Member of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations.  “If you hear our language spoken, you listen to it, and you translate it in your mind in English, and you come back in Cree. So, we have to think in Cree. So the key, they [the elders] say, is you have to learn, if you’re going to decolonize . . . to decolonize your own mind. In other words, think in your own language.”

International Chief Littlechild compares the status of endangered Indigenous languages to the resiliency of willow trees, bending to low extremes, but capable of snapping back to vitality.

International Chief Littlechild meeting with delegates from other nations, at a social hour held after the formal closing of the event.

Mikkel Eskil Mikkelsen noted that the loss of Sámi languages [in northern Europe] represented the largest visible effect of colonization (or “Norwegianization”) of the Sámi people, and like his fellow panelists, acknowledged there is a great deal of work ahead in the field of Indigenous language revitalization.

Brielle Beaudin-Reimer presented her initial findings from a research project sponsored by the OCIL, regarding Michif language fluency in historic community contexts. President Kotierk discussed challenges facing her community, including access to essential services with Inuktitut language options, and the need to increase Inuktitut use and fluency in the workplace.  Both Chief Littlechild and President Kotierk expressed support for the negotiation of an international convention on Indigenous languages that would codify state obligations.

“I want to finish this with a couple of terms that we have in our language . . . one is ingalangaittuq. In my dialect it means ‘standing on elevated level’ . . . And ingalangaittuq is my metaphor with you tonight: to conceptualize forging forward, looking into the future at a high level, which is a level of wisdom. . . . To scan out at all angles to make very bold decisions as Indigenous cultures.” —Elder Leena Evik

Side event attendees included First Nation and Métis leaders from Ontario and Quebec. (Left, Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council Grand Chief Savanna McGregor; middle, Clément Chartier, Ambassador, Manitoba Métis Federation and former President of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples; right, Council of the Atikamekw Nation Grand Chief Constant Awashish).

The session was formally closed with a prayerful song by Red River Métis Elder and fiddler Oliver Boulette.