canada's first peoples
Language Groups


By Communities

p Ojibway
p Cree
p Other Algonquian Families
p Inuktitut
pic Athapaskan
p (Siouan) Dakota
p Salish
p Tsimshian
p Wakashan
p Iroquoian
p Haida
p Tlingit
p Kutenai

The current 50 languages of Canada's indigenous peoples belong to 11 major language families - ten First Nations and Inuktitut. Canada's Aboriginal languages are many and diverse, and their importance to indigenous people immense. This map shows the major aboriginal language families by community in Canada for the year 1996.

These maps show data by Aboriginal communities. These consist of Indian reserves, and other communities inhabited primarily by Inuit and other Aboriginal groups. The set of communities mapped are restricted to only those communities where the population reported an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue which exceeds twenty people.

Looking at the distribution of Native languages today gives us a general idea of where the various groups lived before the coming of the Europeans. However, we must also remember that many Native people have been displaced by the events of history over the past 200 years.


Canada's Aboriginal languages are many and diverse, and their importance to indigenous people immense. Language is one of the most tangible symbols of culture and group identity. It is not only a means of communication, but a link which connects people with their past and grounds their social, emotional and spiritual vitality. Although loss of language does not necessarily lead to the death of a culture, it can severely handicap transmission of that culture. For Aboriginal peoples, great losses have already occurred. During the past 100 years or more, nearly ten once flourishing languages have become extinct; at least a dozen are on the brink of extinction. When these languages vanish, they take with them unique ways of looking at the world, explaining the unknown and making sense of life.

Geography is an important contributor to the diversity, size and distribution of Aboriginal languages across Canada's regions. Open plains and hilly woodlands, for example, are ideal for accommodating large groups of people. Because of the terrain, groups in these locations can travel and communicate with each other relatively easily, and often tend to spread over larger areas.

On the other hand, soaring mountains and deep gorges tend to restrict settlements to small pockets of isolated groups. British Columbia's mountainous landscape with its numerous physical barriers was likely an important factor in the evolution of the province's many separate, now mostly small, languages. Divided by terrain, languages such as Salish, Tsimshian, Wakashan, Haida, Tlingit and Kutenai could not develop as large a population base as the widely spread Algonquian (particularly Cree and Ojibway) and the Athapaskan languages, whose homes are the more open central plains and eastern woodlands.

Geography can also influence the likelihood of a language's survival. Groups located in relatively isolated regions, away from the dominant culture, face fewer pressures to abandon their language. They tend to use their own language in schooling, broadcasting and other communication services and, as a result, are likely to stay more self-sufficient. Communities living in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, the northern regions of Quebec and Labrador - the Inuit, Attikamek and Montagnais-Naskapi - are examples of such groups.

Because of their large, widely dispersed populations, the Algonquian languages account for the highest share of Aboriginal languages in all provinces except British Columbia and in the territories, ranging from 72% in Newfoundland to nearly 100% in the other Atlantic provinces. In both British Columbia and the Yukon, the Athapascan languages make up the largest share (26% and 80%, respectively), while Inuktitut is the most prominent Aboriginal language in the Northwest Territories and practically the only one in Nunavut. British Columbia, home to about half of all individual Aboriginal languages, is the most diverse in Aboriginal language composition. However, because of the small size of these language groups, the province accounts for only 7% of people with an Aboriginal mother tongue.

Source: Atlas of Canada, Natural Resources Canada
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Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 2007