Language and Identity | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
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Language and Identity

Explore how language and culture shape identity, and learn about the challenges faced by the Indigenous Peoples of Canada to preserve their traditional identity.


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This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.

At a Glance

chapter copy


English — CA


  • Social Studies




One week
  • Genocide


About This Chapter

The language we speak often connects us to a shared experience, a shared past, and a shared culture. In this first chapter, we examine the relationship between language and identity within the context of the Indian Residential Schools.

  1. What factors shape our individual or group identities?
  2. What role does language play in shaping people’s identities? How can the loss of language affect members of the group who once spoke it? How does the loss of language and culture affect people’s choices?
  3. What is the relationship between language, landscape, and land? How does land help forge a sense of identity?

This chapter is from the Identity, Membership, and History section of Stolen Lives and includes:

  • 7 readings
  • Connection questions

This book focuses on language and identity in the context of the colonial policies—specifically, the Indian Residential Schools—that brought about the near destruction of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. This first chapter centres on the first step in the Facing History & Ourselves journey: the relationship between individual identity and the social and cultural elements that shape it. Here we will explore the connections between identity, family, religion, ethnic background, our social environment, and public policies. We will also be looking at how a person’s identity can affect his or her choices, self-esteem, and connection to others. Finally, this chapter examines some of the challenges faced by the three indigenous groups recognized by law, First Nations , Métis , and Inuit ,and, when it comes to preserving their traditional identity.

The answer to the question “Who am I?” defines our individual identity. But the answer we give is often complex, since we all have more than one identity. We are members of specific communities and ethnicities, we have religious (or non-religious) affiliations, and we speak different languages, so “Who am I?” is tied closely to other questions, including “Who are we?” All of those factors contribute to our complex identity at different times. Moreover, many people think of their identity as something they can create for themselves. Therefore, it is worth considering how much of our identity is the result of our own choices and how much of it is shaped by other factors outside our control. In the Canadian context, two unique factors also need to be considered: the effect of the residential schools, which were designed to reshape indigenous identities in the image of European white men and women, and the legal system, which defined the Aboriginal Peoples as separate nations with a special relation to the Crown. This was reaffirmed in the 1982 constitution .

Here we focus on language and its power to impact identity. Language can help create a shared sense of identity and belonging. Indeed, the language we speak often connects us to a shared experience, a shared past, a shared culture. When a language disappears, these bonds can be broken. In other words, when people cannot learn the language of their traditional community, they will find it hard to connect with their ancestors’ religion, culture, and history.

As recorded in 2011, there are more than 60 indigenous languages in Canada, which are grouped into 12 distinct language families. Canadian law recognizes only three broadly defined indigenous population groups, so this wide variety of languages is perhaps more revealing of the diversity within the indigenous population. But many of these languages are at risk; some have only a handful of speakers alive. Some are no longer spoken at all. Critics argue that very little is being done to help keep these languages alive.

  • First Nations First Nations : First Nations have lived in North America for tens of thousands of years. Today, the term refers to some 617 different communities, traditionally composed of groups of 400 or so. These nations enjoy a richness and diversity of identity, culture, and customs. Many view North America as their traditional homeland and do not recognize aspects of US and Canadian sovereignty. Alongside the Métis and Inuit Peoples, First Nations are part of a larger grouping officially called the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.
  • Métis Métis : The term broadly describes descendants of mixed European and First Nations ancestry. In a narrow sense, Métis refers only to the descendants of First Nations people and French settlers in Manitoba. The history of the Métis reflects the intermingling of their different ways of life during the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North American fur trade. Eventually, these descendants developed distinct language, culture, and traditions.
  • Inuit Inuit : The term Inuit refers broadly to the indigenous population of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Inuit means “people,” and the language they speak in the Canadian Arctic is called Inuktitut. For centuries, these communities have relied on their natural resources, strong leaders, and innovative tools and skills to survive in the Arctic north. Today, the Inuit communities of Canada live in the Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland, and the region is divided into four territories.
  • Aboriginal Aboriginal : Stemming from the mid-seventeenth-century Latin term aborigines, meaning “original inhabitants,” Aboriginal is the preferred legal term in Canada for the large and diverse grouping of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit nations. It is used synonymously with the term indigenous in various parts of Canada.
  • constitution constitution : Canada’s constitution was signed in 1982 and affirmed indigenous pre-existing rights: Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982 recognizes and provides protection to the rights granted to Indigenous Peoples in the Royal Proclamation and subsequent treaties. While the Constitution recognizes rights such as logging, fishing, hunting, and the rights to land, it did not settle the issue of indigenous self-government. But in recent years, the Canadian government adopted policies that recognize in principle the right for self-government as stipulated in the treaties.
  • indigenous indigenous : A generic term for communities of people who resided on territories before they were invaded and/or colonized (primarily by Europeans). Many descendants of these communities have a historical and cultural continuity with their pre-colonial ancestors. For some, the term indigenous is preferable to Aboriginal in reference to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit in Canada.

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Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif