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Indigenous musicians should have a bigger part of Canadian airwaves.

A year ago, a group of First Nations artists and personalities publicly demanded a five per cent quota for music in Indigenous languages on commercial radio. A petition followed their demand last July.

This idea was previously raised during consultations on the development of a new Indigenous broadcasting policy, undertaken by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in 2019.

About 1.8 million Canadians identify themselves as members of the First Nations (including Inuit and Métis), representing around 4.5 per cent of the population. Their numbers have been growing in recent years. A five per cent quota on the radio airwaves would reflect their demographic weight and help perpetuate the cultural contribution of Indigenous peoples.

A question of survival

There are at least 70 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada. However, 20 of them are spoken by 500 people or fewer, most of them elders. This means that some of these ancestral languages could disappear within a few decades.

This is the point made by those calling for a quota: broadcasting music in Indigenous languages would contribute to their survival at a time when some of them are on the verge of extinction for lack of being sufficiently spoken and heard.

The precarious nature of these languages is recognized by both Canada, which adopted the Indigenous Languages Act in 2019, and UNESCO, which declared 2022 the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Languages.

According to the 2021 census, 189,000 Canadians had at least one Indigenous language as their mother tongue, and 183,000 spoke it at home on a regular basis. For 86,000 Canadians, their Indigenous mother tongue was their most frequent language of communication.

The census also showed that about 243,000 Canadians were able to carry on a conversation in an Indigenous language.

Given Canada’s population passed the 40 million mark last year, the future of dozens of ancestral languages rests on the shoulders of around 0.6 per cent of the population.

The obvious conclusion is that if Indigenous languages are to survive, or even flourish, the number of Canadians who speak and understand them, and who are therefore exposed to them, must increase considerably.

The example of the French language

“Radio plays an important role in introducing listeners to Canadian music and artists,” says the CRTC website. It goes on to explain that “the CRTC’s policies and regulations help maintain a French-language presence on radio and provide exposure for francophone artists.”

For this reason, all radio stations across the country must reserve at least 35 per cent of their programming for Canadian content. French-language stations must also devote 65 per cent of their weekly popular music programming to French-language music; commercial stations – which exclude community stations and Radio-Canada – are required to broadcast 55 per cent French-language music during prime time, between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday to Friday.

This requirement obviously serves to protect and promote the French language. And yet, even though the status of Indigenous languages is far more precarious, Indigenous music is rarely heard amid the 35 per cent Canadian music quota for commercial radio stations, whose programming is predominantly English or French.

This should change, in keeping with the spirit of the Indigenous Languages Act and Ottawa’s commitment to preserving and promoting traditional First Nations languages.

However, Ottawa devotes a mere $8 million to funding Indigenous broadcasting, which relies entirely on not-for-profit organizations. According to the CRTC, many eligible broadcasters are turned down, with funds defaulting to the usual recipients, year after year.

It’s also important to avoid the misconception that music in Indigenous languages is only of interest to First Nations. Just think of the success of Kasthin in the 1980s or, more recently, the Inuk singer Elisapie Isaac, who has covered several major English-language hits in Inuktitut – an ingenious bridge to bring two cultures and two languages closer together. Nor is indigenous music a monolithic block: artists, whether singing in their mother tongue, English or French, perform in almost every musical style in existence.

More importantly, a quota for private radio would enable the state to bring these languages to a wider audience, sometimes thousands of kilometers from the communities where they originate, at almost no cost.

A cultural boom

At the time of writing, the CRTC had not responded to the quota request. Yet the Act to amend the Broadcasting Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts, assented to in April 2023, aims to give more space to productions by Canada’s Indigenous musicians.

You can’t love what you don’t know. That’s why we need to make music in Indigenous languages available to more than just the listeners of Indigenous broadcasters.

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Marie-Ève Martel

Marie-Ève Martel is a freelance journalist, author and media consultant. She has written many essays and has briefly worked as Deputy editor at Policy Options. She also wrote for the Canadian Press and La Voix de l’Est.

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