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Gaelic is the Celtic language of Scotland and Ireland, and an important heritage language in Canada.

Gaelic was brought to Canada in the 18th century by Hudson’s Bay Company traders from the Scottish Highlands and by the large numbers of Scottish and Irish settlers who emigrated to Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario. The earliest Scottish settlers landed in Prince Edward Island and Alba Nuadh (“New Scotland,” or Nova Scotia). The first Irish emigrants came to Talamh an Éisc (“Land of Fish,” or Newfoundland), the only place outside Europe with an Irish Gaelic name.

By 1881, Canadians of Irish and Scottish descent outnumbered the English and French, and Gaelic was Canada’s third most common language. In fact, it was the mother tongue of our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, and most of the Fathers of Confederation! In 1890, a bill was introduced into Parliament to make Gaelic the nation’s third official language. Although unsuccessful, this bill shows the prominence of Gaelic in 19th-century Canada.

Because of social and economic factors, Canadian Gaelic became an endangered language in the 20th century. Television and modern transportation brought Gaelic communities into increasing contact with English. At the same time, use of the Gaelic tongue was discouraged at school and even at home, because parents saw English fluency as the passport to prosperity.

As a result, the number of native speakers has dwindled from roughly 200,000 at the time of Confederation to fewer than 1,000 today, living mainly on Cape Breton Island. Fortunately, efforts are now underway to preserve Gaelic in Canada, giving reason to hope that the mother tongue of our first prime minister will continue to be spoken here.