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Promoting French and preserving Indigenous languages a priority: Petitpas Taylor

OTTAWA — New Official Languages Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor says protecting Indigenous languages to make sure they are taught to future generations is a priority for the Liberal government, alongside promoting French throughout Canada.

OTTAWA — New Official Languages Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor says protecting Indigenous languages to make sure they are taught to future generations is a priority for the Liberal government, alongside promoting French throughout Canada.

She said although Indigenous languages are not recognized as "official" like English and French, she will work with other ministers to make sure they receive support and resources so they "don't become extinct." 

In an interview with The Canadian Press to discuss her new role, Petitpas Taylor says she wants to make sure that Indigenous languages, such as Cree and Inuktitut, are not "erased."

Petitpas Taylor, who represents a New Brunswick riding and is fluently bilingual, said modernizing the Official Languages Act to preserve and promote French is also a key aim for the first 100 days of the new Liberal minority government. 

The Liberals introduced a bill to overhaul the Official Languages Act in June, which died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved for the Sept. 20 election. 

Petitpas Taylor said she is concerned about the decline of French across Canada and said a key part of her role is to make sure people have a chance to speak and read the language — and not just at school.

The minister, who spoke French at home and attended the francophone Universite de Moncton, said "part of my role is to ensure that we promote the French language and do all we can (to make sure) more people have access.”

She said protecting the rights of anglophones in French-speaking areas is also part of her job. 

Petitpas Taylor said she supports Indigenous MPs who want to speak in the House of Commons in their mother tongues.

Her remarks follow the decision of Nunavut MP Lori Idlout to take her parliamentary oath in Inuktitut. Idlout indicated in an interview with The Canadian Press that she would address the House of Commons in Inuktitut on occasion. 

Petitpas Taylor said it was "really, really important, as a part of reconciliation … that we do the hard work that is needed."

She said "we have to make sure that when it comes to language, it is not just French and English when we talk about languages, our mother tongue. It is a part of our identity, it is about who we are, our culture."

While she was health minister, she ensured official communications on issues such as health screening and even the Canada Food Guide were available in First Nations languages.

She said much progress had been made in 2019 with a bill, known as C-91, which provided funding to support Indigenous languages and introduced a commissioner for those languages. But she said she and other ministers would keep working to “make sure that Indigenous languages don’t become extinct.”

Petitpas Taylor was first elected as member of Parliament for Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe in 2015. After the recent election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed her official languages minister and minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

In addition to health minister, she has previously served as parliamentary secretary to the minister of finance.

Soon after first being elected, as an assistant government whip, the former front-line social worker helped advise the prime minister when he had to make harrowing phone calls to parents of Canadian Forces personnel who had been killed in action.

“I certainly provided some information about some approaches,” she said. “If you have to speak to a family member it is really, really tough.”

As a health minister Petitpas Taylor ushered in the law legalizing cannabis, which she said has, three years later, turned out to be "a non-issue." 

But she said there is still work to do to clamp down on black-market sales of cannabis, and "shutting down establishments" that are not legal.

"Legalization has taken a slice out of the black market but we knew it wasn't going to be done overnight and there is still some work that needs to be done there. We are going in the right direction," she said. 

The former health minister said she supported more research to see if moves in British Columbia to help people addicted to drugs, including giving access to clean sources of drugs and medication, were effective.

“We have to keep in mind that when it comes to substance use we have to treat people where they are at," she said. "And a part of that regime means that ensuring that safe supplies are made available for some."

B.C. is seeking federal support for its proposal to decriminalize the personal possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. The province is allocating over $20 million to health authorities to provide safe supplies of drugs to some addicts, to help prevent overdoses. 

"In Vancouver … they have supervised consumption sites and they also have medication therapy. We have seen some successes in that area so more studies need to be done with respect to that," she said. 

She welcomed the prime minister's creation of a ministerial role tackling the addiction crisis, alongside mental health, held by Carolyn Bennett. 

Petitpas Taylor said she was prepared to work with MPs from other parties to get things done. She said she was “not the most partisan minister or individual” but was prepared to “take the gloves off” if she needed to. 

“I try to keep myself really grounded,” she said. "I am the youngest of a family of 10 kids. If I don’t keep myself grounded, my brothers and sisters will make sure that I am grounded.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2021.

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

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