Analyzing issues in Canadian sign language recognition

by Kristin Snoddon and Erin Wilkinson

Note: this is a blog about a longer article:
Snoddon, K. & Wilkinson, E. 2019. Problematizing the legal recognition of sign languages in Canada. Canadian Modern Language Review, 75(2)128-144. https://doi.org/10.3138/cmlr.2018-0232

Our paper discusses issues in Canadian sign language recognition in light of the federal government’s introduction of An Act to Ensure a Barrier-Free Canada, or Bill C-81. Since our paper was published, this bill, also known as the Accessible Canada Act, has received royal assent, which is the last step before a parliamentary bill becomes law in Canada.

Our paper also discusses related deaf community activism, past and present, especially by the Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada (CAD-ASC). Over the years, CAD-ASC has tried several times to achieve official recognition of American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ), and sign languages are recognized in different ways in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta.

In the context of the Accessible Canada Act, the topic of sign language recognition first emerged in December 2016 media reports, which stated there are two sign languages used by Canadian people who are “medically deaf”: ASL and LSQ. However, when Bill C-81 was first introduced in the House of Commons on 20 June 2018, it did not mention sign language despite lobbying by CAD-ASC. In fact, sign language recognition was not included in the text of Bill C-81 until 13 May 2019, when the Senate passed the bill with amendments that included the addition of the following clarification to the section titled “Purpose of the Act”:

5.1 (2) American Sign Language, Quebec Sign Language and Indigenous sign languages are recognized as the primary languages for communication by deaf persons in Canada.

This subsection clarifies s. 5 regarding the purpose of the Accessible Canada Act to identify and remove barriers to accessibility, as well as prevent new barriers.

We have identified some gaps in government and public knowledge surrounding sign language use in Canada, including sign languages of deaf Indigenous peoples. To do this, we looked at 2016 Canada Census data regarding three types of language classifications: (1) mother tongue, (2) language most used at home, and (3) knowledge of sign language. Our analysis found there is not enough research about Canadian sign languages, since more than half of the respondents to these questions who reported using a sign language stated that their sign language was other than ASL or LSQ.

Indigenous peoples are not included in the Canadian Census if they reside on reservations. A higher percentage of Indigenous people are deaf than in the general population, and this suggests there may be more use of sign languages among Indigenous peoples. The inclusion of Indigenous sign languages in Bill C-81 means more research and analysis is needed of what this means for deaf Indigenous peoples.

There are already protections for sign language access rights in Canadian constitutional legislation. For instance, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes deaf people’s right to an interpreter in court and to access public services. We argue that the framework of disability legislation in Bill C-81 means sign language rights are seen in terms of the right to an interpreter—i.e., the removal of communication barriers—but not to other educational or cultural rights.

Sign languages are legally recognized in other countries around the world, including Belgium, where in 2006 the Flemish parliament officially recognized Flemish Sign Language (VGT) as the language of the Flemish deaf community. In Belgium, every citizen belongs to either a Dutch- or French-speaking language group, so there are parallels with Canada’s official languages of English and French. In 2006, New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) achieved constitutional recognition as an official language of New Zealand. Māori, an Indigenous language, was officially recognized by New Zealand in 1987. In both countries, since the legal recognition of VGT and NZSL was achieved, there has been a decline in the numbers of deaf children learning sign language and therefore in the vitality of these sign languages.

In our paper, we originally proposed a Sign Languages Act to parallel the Indigenous Languages Act (Bill C-91) that may have better encompassed sign language rights for deaf Canadians. For example, a Sign Languages Act may have addressed deaf children’s right to learn a sign language and included all different sign languages across Canada, including Maritime Sign Language and Inuit Sign Language.

Bill C-91, An Act Respecting Indigenous Languages, received royal assent on the same day as the Accessible Canada Act. Bill C-91 includes Indigenous sign languages within the purpose and direct scope of the Act to support and promote the use of Indigenous languages and support the efforts of Indigenous peoples to reclaim, revitalize, maintain and strengthen Indigenous languages. This legislation includes Indigenous sign language rights that include language education initiatives and teaching materials, research, funding, and monitoring by way of a Commissioner of Indigenous Languages.

The legal recognition of Indigenous sign languages in Canada is now much stronger than legislation that recognizes ASL and LSQ and perhaps stronger than most sign language recognition that exists elsewhere in the world. We will discuss these issues further in our next paper.


Kristin Snoddon is Associate Professor in the School of Early Childhood Studies, Ryerson University. Her research interests include analysis of policy issues related to inclusive education, sign language rights, and acquisition planning for ASL. She’s on Twitter as @KristinSnoddon

Erin Wilkinson is Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of New Mexico. Her research interests include bilingualism in signing populations, language change and variation in signed languages, and signed language typology. She’s on Twitter as @ErinWilkinson