Deaf Canadian Indigenous leaders advocate for recognition of Indigenous Sign Languages

Leaders in the Deaf indigenous community in Canada have been advocating for official recognition of Indigenous Sign Languages (ISL).

They wanted ISL to be a part of Bill C-91, which is titled, “An Act respecting Indigenous languages.” It focused on spoken languages, and they wanted signed languages to be a part of it. It has successfully been amended in the House of Commons version of the bill.

This week The Daily Moth did two interviews to learn more about Indigenous Sign Languages.

Firstly, I will show you an interview with Paula Wesley, a representative from the Indigenous Sign Languages Council and the BC Hummingbird Society for the Deaf.

Paula Wesley: Our language, Indigenous Sign Languages, should be recognized in the Indigenous Languages Act because we have been authentically using the languages for a long time. It is the oldest signed language in the world. It has been used by both the deaf and hearing communities. There are different groups but we support both because hearing people use it for hand talk, which means to communicate through gestures — for hunting, gatherings, and for practical ceremonies, which is done in private at the homes of their families. They use the signs to communicate with their groups. It is generally used when people can’t understand others’ spoken languages because it’s not the same or has different accents. They use the signs for trade, hunting and other purposes. Now, for an indigenous deaf person, their signs are home signs. It is called gestures. You can see this in the world when people develop their own gestures as they meet deaf people for the first time from other countries. They will have to gesture. It’s the same idea, but with their own family, in their home and community. Also in schools, or maybe not, but in their community. There is limited access to spoken language so they use gestures with their people. We are trying to find how to get access to recognize ISL.

[Graphic of different kinds of ISL]

British Columbia has over 500 different language groups. I’m sure there are many more across Canada. It is our goal to document information from different provinces and find representatives to spread awareness and document what their signs look like.

[Graphic showing 8 members of the Indigenous Sign Languages Council and BC Hummingbird Society of the Deaf (BCHSD)]

Alex: The next interview I will show you is with Marsha Ireland and Miranda Ireland-Kennedy, who represent the Oneida Nation. They have been very active in teaching, raising awareness, and documenting Oneida Sign Language.

Miranda Ireland-Kennedy: All three languages are important. ASL, French, and ISL. We need all three, too. Multilingualism is a norm in Canada, and in the U.S. as well.

Marsha Ireland: Here’s an example. If people ask me in ASL if I want to “celebrate,” I can’t identify with the concept of the sign. While my sign is this. (Shows Oneida sign for “celebrate.”) There is always a fire set up. It makes sense, is good, and I can identify with it. The ASL sign for celebrate isn’t the same. (Shows Oneida sign again).

When there is an interpreter, if a hearing Oneida person uses his voice, he chooses the Oneida language first and English second. I’m taken aback and the interpreter is unable to do anything. How do I communicate? I am a member of the Oneida as well. The elder has seen me often and feels that it is not right for me. It’s hard to communicate because the interpreter doesn’t sign in Oneida Sign Language, but in English/ASL. The elder said, “Ah.” But where is my interpreter? I’m unable to answer. I only have home made signs. So my husband and I have developed Oneida Sign Language. Now hearing people understand what I am saying. With the government, I’ve told them about those things and about two rows. They didn’t understand. I explained there has to be mutual respect for English and for the Oneida language. It is a two-way path, it doesn’t cross against each other.

Ireland-Kennedy: One issue is that I identify first with indigenous, but I can’t understand them, while I understand deaf people. I have that connecting with deaf persons because of Deaf or mainstream schools. But what about indigenous languages or signs? There is a struggle. That’s why most of us today have identity struggles. If ISL is successfully enacted in both bills, ASL, LSQ, and ISL will thrive. We need all those languages.

Alex: ISL was recognized in another major Canadian bill that can have a tremendous impact on deaf people’s lives — Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act.

Wesley will explain more about this.

Wesley: It was very exciting when our committee listened to us and quickly amended ISL along with ASL and LSQ. Frank Folino shared this briefly. He is our CAD-ASC President and our ally too. Folino spoke briefly about ISL because one of the senators asked, “Why not include ISL along with ASL and LSQ?” That senator proposed it and asked other senators if they had any objections. All of them agreed to it. It was quickly voted through and passed the third reading very fast. This was very recent. It’s going very fast.

Alex: That bill, C-81, is now awaiting a final step — approval by the House of Commons. Then it can get a Royal Assent and become law. This could happen very soon. Many are excited.

For Bill C-91, the Indigenous Languages Act, it is still in the middle of the legislative process.

I’ve included links in the transcript for more information about Indigenous Sign Languages.

Thank you to Wesley and the Irelands for your time and sharing.

ISL Brief by ISL Council:

ISL Facebook page:

Bill C-91:

Oneida Sign Language:

Bill C-81: