In 2006, one in five (20%) off-reserve First Nations children aged two to five were able to understand an Aboriginal language, regardless of whether it was learned as a mother tongue or second language. Cree and Ojibway were the languages understood by the largest number of these children.
First Nations children make up a growing proportion of all children in Canada, particularly in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. In 2006, the census enumerated about 57,110 First Nations children aged two to five across Canada living on and off reserve.
The vast majority (98%) of young off-reserve First Nations children who understood an Aboriginal language could also understand a non-Aboriginal language. English and/or French were the primary languages spoken at home for 90% of off-reserve young First Nations children.
About 1 in 10 off-reserve First Nations children aged two to five were spoken to primarily in an Aboriginal language at home, 8% in combination with English and/or French, and 1% exclusively in an Aboriginal language.
Using data from the 2006 Aboriginal Children's Survey, this article identified characteristics in the lives of these children most closely associated with their ability to understand an Aboriginal language.
The strongest predictor was daily exposure to Aboriginal languages at home, holding all other characteristics constant.
The odds of understanding an Aboriginal language for young off-reserve First Nations children who were exposed to an Aboriginal language on a daily basis at home were 6.6 times the odds for children who were not.
Other strong predictors were being in child care arrangements where Aboriginal languages were used; having parents who believed in the importance of speaking and understanding an Aboriginal language; and having at least one parent with an Aboriginal mother tongue.
The extended family, such as grandparents, aunts or uncles, also played a role in passing down Aboriginal languages to young children. This is important, given that not all off-reserve First Nations children have the opportunity to be exposed to Aboriginal languages at home.
At the community level, social networks and child care providers appeared to contribute to the transmission of Aboriginal languages to these children, even after accounting for family and socio-demographic characteristics.
The odds of understanding an Aboriginal language for off-reserve First Nations children who had a teacher or child care provider who helped them understand First Nations culture and history were about double the odds for children who did not receive such help.
Other factors that were associated with the ability to understand an Aboriginal language were residing in a community perceived by parents as a good place for First Nations cultural activities, and frequent participation in hunting, fishing, trapping or camping activities.