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2006 Census: Aboriginal Peoples in Canada in 2006: Inuit, Métis and First Nations, 2006 Census: First Nations people

Share of First Nations people who speak an Aboriginal language holds steady, even among younger generation

Language is often recognized as the essence of a culture. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples has stated that the revitalization of traditional languages is a key component in the creation of healthy individuals and communities.1 Language is 'not only a means of communication, but a link which connects people with their past and grounds their social, emotional and spiritual vitality.'2 According to the 2001 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, two out of three First Nations people felt that keeping, learning or relearning their Aboriginal language was very or somewhat important.3

In both 2001 and 2006, about 29% of First Nations people who responded to the census said they could speak an Aboriginal language well enough to carry on a conversation.4 The figure was higher for First Nations people living on reserve (51%) than for those living off reserve (12%).

Only 1% of First Nations people spoke only an Aboriginal language, although this percentage rose to 5% among seniors aged 65 to 74, and 10% among those aged 75 and over. Of the on-reserve population, 18% of First Nations people aged 75 and over spoke only an Aboriginal language.

Fully one-half of First Nations seniors could converse in an Aboriginal language. About 50% of seniors aged 65 to 74 and 52% of those aged 75 and over could speak an Aboriginal language. In the on-reserve population, roughly four-fifths (83%) of First Nations seniors aged 75 and over spoke an Aboriginal language, compared with about one-quarter (24%) of their contemporaries living off reserve.

The ability to speak an ancestral language is one way of passing knowledge from one generation to another. The process of learning one's Aboriginal language may also contribute to increased self-esteem and well-being.5 In 2006, 21% of First Nations children aged 14 and under and 24% of youth aged 15 to 24 could carry on a conversation in their ancestral language, about the same shares as in 2001.

The ability to speak an Aboriginal language was again much more common among the on-reserve population. For example, 39% of children aged 14 and under living on reserve spoke an Aboriginal language, up slightly from 36% in 2001. In contrast, the proportion was 6% for First Nations children living off reserve, down slightly from 8% in 2001.

Table 23 Percentage of First Nations people who have knowledge of an Aboriginal language, by age groups, Canada, 2001 and 2006

Cree spoken by the largest number of First Nations people

The census recorded over 60 different Aboriginal languages spoken by First Nations people in Canada, grouped into distinct language families. These include Algonquian, Athapaskan, Siouan,6 Salish, Tsimshian, Wakashan, Iroquoian,7 Haida, Kutenai and Tlingit. The long term viability of some Algonquian languages, such as Cree and Ojibway, is considered to be more likely than other First Nation languages like Nisga'a and Haida due to a relatively large population base of speakers.8

The Aboriginal language spoken by the largest number of First Nations people is Cree. An estimated 87,285 could carry on a conversation in Cree, followed by 30,255 who could speak Ojibway, 12,435 who spoke Oji-Cree and 11,080 who spoke Montagnais-Naskapi.

In addition, an estimated 9,250 could carry on a conversation in Dene, 8,540 in Mi'kmaq, 6,285 in Siouan languages and 5,320 in Atikamekw. Around 4,760 were able to carry on a conversation in Blackfoot. Most of these languages are from the Algonquian family, except for the Siouan languages (Dakota and Sioux) and the Dene language from the Athapaskan family.

The number of First Nations people who speak their ancestral language has increased for most of the languages with large numbers of speakers. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of First Nations people who spoke Oji-Cree rose by 20%. The number of First Nations speakers increased 12% for Atikamekw, 10% for Blackfoot and Montagnais-Naskapi, and 8% for Dene. The number speaking Cree increased 7%.

The number of First Nations people who could carry on a conversation in Mi'kmaq was about the same in 2006 as in 2001.

However, there was a 2% decline in the number of First Nations people who could converse in Ojibway. Because Ojibway is spoken by such a large number of people, this translated into over 600 fewer First Nations Aboriginal language speakers between 2001 and 2006. Other languages with a decline of at least 30% included Haida (-31%), Tlingit (-30%) and Malecite (-30%).

Table 24 Aboriginal languages indicators for First Nations people, Canada, 2001 and 2006

First Nations languages being learned as second languages

One in four First Nations people (25%) reported that they had an Aboriginal mother tongue in 2006, about the same proportion as in 2001. However, more First Nations people could speak an Aboriginal language than reported an Aboriginal language as a mother tongue. This may be attributed to First Nations people who have learned an Aboriginal language as a second language.

For example, 76,460 First Nations people reported having Cree as a mother tongue in 2006, while 87,285 reported that they could converse in Cree. This means that about 12% of all First Nations people who spoke Cree in 2006 learned it as a second language.

The share of second language speakers was as high as 30% or 40% for some of the languages with very few First Nations speakers, such as Shuswap, which had 1,585 speakers, Tsimshian (590), and Tlingit (150). It was also quite high for Blackfoot (4,760 speakers) and Athapaskan languages not included elsewhere (1,530 speakers).


  1. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). 1996. Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 5 vols. Ottawa, Government of Canada. Pg. 163.
  2. Norris, M. J. 1998. 'Canada's Aboriginal Languages.' Canadian Social Trends, no. 51, Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 11‑008, p. 8.
  3. Statistics Canada. 2003. Aboriginal Peoples Survey 2001 – Initial Findings: Well-being of the Non-reserve Aboriginal Population. Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 89-589-XIE.
  4. There were changes in reporting patterns and coding between 1996 and 2001 for some Aboriginal languages (Cree, Ojibway, Oji-Cree, North Slave (Hare), South Slave) and for some Indian reserves. As a result of these changes, the analysis of Aboriginal languages in this document concentrates on changes from 2001 to 2006, adjusting for incompletely enumerated reserves.
  5. Canadian Heritage, 2005. 'Towards a New Beginning: A Foundation Report for a Strategy to Revitalize First Nation, Inuit and Métis Languages and Cultures.' Report to the Minister of Canadian Heritage by the Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures, June 2005. Ottawa. Catalogue No. CH4-96/2005.
  6. When comparing the 2006 Census results to those of the 2001 Census, it appears that there is some overestimation of persons reporting Siouan languages (Dakota/Sioux) in British Columbia and, as a result, also at the Canada level. Although it affects a relatively small population, it is best to apply caution when analysing census data for Siouan languages (Dakota/Sioux) in these geographies.
  7. Due to incomplete enumeration of reserves, caution should be exercised when using data for the Iroquoian languages.
  8. Norris, M.J. 2007. 'Aboriginal languages in Canada: Emerging trends and perspectives on second language acquisition' Canadian Social Trends, no. 83, Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 11‑008.

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