Two maps showing Canadian Aboriginal languages

Every five years, Canada holds a census which includes several questions on language. The last census was held in 2016, and the data pertaining to language were released in August and October, 2017, respectively. Of particular interest to the SSILA readership are the data concerning “Aboriginal” (the Canadian government’s cover term for “First Nations, Inuit, and Métis”) languages.

This data has been visualized in two rather different, yet similar, maps.

The map released on Dec 15, 2017 by Chris Brackley in GeoCanada shows the responses to Question 8 of the 2016 Census: “a) What language does this person speak most often at home? b) Does this person speak any other languages on a regular basis at home?” for the Aboriginal languages of Canada, organized by language family. Colour-coded dots indicate where languages of each family are spoken; speaker numbers are represented by dot-size; the larger the dot, the more speakers there are.

Another, as yet unpublished, map was produced by Joseph Lovick (full disclosure: Olga Lovick’s husband). J. Lovick mapped responses to Question 9 of the 2016 Census: “What is the language that this person first learned at home in childhood and still understands?” Again, Canadian Aboriginal languages are indicated by colour-coded dots, again they are organized by language family, again dot size correlates with speaker number.

When comparing the two maps, one notices that (questions of scale and other technical aspects aside) the dots on J. Lovick’s map are smaller, especially in British Columbia, where a large number of Canada’s Aboriginal languages can be found. Why?

The different datasets tell different stories. C. Brackley’s map includes counts of both native speakers and L2 learners. Since census data relies by its nature on self-reporting, and since language is highly politicized in Canada, we suspect that some individuals may have exaggerated their language use. J. Lovick’s map on the other hand shows “mother tongue” data; while the concerns about the validity of census data apply here as well, thi census question is less open to interpretation. (“Thank you” to Bill Poser for discussing these issues with me!)

J. Lovick’s map shows the full impact of Canada’s Aboriginal policies for the majority of the country’s history. For most language families, there are now very few speakers, and most languages are not projected to survive into the next century. Most vital are languages in remote areas. This is the grim heritage of the Residential School System.

C. Brackley’s map shows how cognizant of this endangerment Aboriginal people in Canada are. By claiming home language use on the census, they are shouting “We are here! We need our languages and we’re working to keep them alive!” The map expresses the hope that Aboriginal languages can be brought back from the brink.

Two language maps — two stories.

Check them out here:

Chris Brackley, 2017, Number of people speaking Indigenous Languages at home. Canadian Geographic, November/December 2017. Online at:

Joseph Lovick, 2017, Aboriginal language speakers in Canada. Online at:


Information on the Language questions in the 2016 Census can be found here:

Updated: December 20, 2017 — 4:31 pm