Thursday, 3 January 2013

Michif: a Language Born and Near Death on our Native Land.

This was an opinion piece I had sent to a number of news papers, but I never received much of a reply, it seems that Aboriginal languages are not interesting enough so I will publish it here. The National Post said it does not fit within their news parameters. Perhaps its a bit long, but you are all intelligent people. I also talked about Aboriginal languages with Radio-Canada on Oct 24, 2012 after the release of new stats that showed how they are declining.

Michif: a Language Born and Near Death on our Native Land.

Canada’s Aboriginal languages are dying and they are dying very quickly. In 2008 the United Nations dedicated it as the International Year of Languages, warning that thousands of languages face eventual extinction. Canada a rich nation and a member of the G8 has done little since then to save the cultural treasures which were born of our native soil. Around the world a language dies on average every two weeks and many aboriginal languages in Canada are among those considered in peril. The statistics from the 2011 census hide some terrible facts about the state of these Indigenous languages of Canada. While Anishnaabe and Cree (Nehiyaw) both have large speakers with people as second and mother tongue speakers it seems that by delving deeper into the statistics we are able to arrive at some startling discoveries. Dale McCreery a Métis from British Columbia and a linguist conducted a study of Cree language. Now, why would a Métis (Michif) be interested in the Cree? He wanted to interview adult learners who had learned to speak the Cree language not as a mother tongue, but as a second language to better understand “the challenges facing adult learners of Cree [which] would likely mirror many of the challenges facing adult learners of Michif.” Cree was not something they regularly spoke at home even though grandparents and parents might have spoken the languages. He was fascinated about the techniques of how they learned and what enabled them to speak the language with English as their mother tongue. According to Statistics Canada there are over 14 630 people who speak Cree as a second language in Canada and 83 475 as a primary language. This should make Dale’s time very easy finding how Cree has managed to survive so easily compared to other Indigenous language. Unfortunately Dale only managed to find 6-8 speakers who could hold a conversation and who had learned Cree as a secondary language. It seems the statistics are not telling us the entire picture. There are many people who have taken Cree in universities, technical colleges and school, but it seems that these institutions have failed in enabling us to learn the language. It seems many people write down information in the census which is not entirely true.

What is the actual state of Cree? Many are writing down that their language skills are better than they seem due to issues of identity. This is probably the same for both mother and secondary speakers. I had an uncle who very rarely had the chance to speak Cree which he learned as a child. He went to residential school and did not teach the language to his children and they did not teach it to their children. When his daughter would attempt to learn a few words such as hello (Tansay, Monanaantow) he would say you are speaking all wrong. She felt that she was not good and did not want to attempt to try again. Many of the secondary language learners at universities feel great social pressure as Cree people to know their language. Many prayers are conducted in Cree by the knowledge keepers and they cannot follow the words, but because it is not an appropriate time to ask questions of what certain words mean they never learn the understanding of the prayers. Often by the end of the university courses students are able to do multiple choice tests and even understand some of the seemingly complicated verb endings, but unfortunately they are often unable to hold a conversation. At one university Cree course I took, every week I would introduce myself in Cree to my fellow students, but they could not even recognize the word hello (Tansay). They had finished taking 13 weeks of Cree language classes and will now indicate on the census form that they have some knowledge of the language, but they cannot say hello.  They have wasted their time and money and we have wasted the opportunity to have someone who can preserve a language. The statistics give our Canadian and Aboriginal leaders a false sense of security about the languages. The Senate is writing a report about the Aboriginal languages and they will indicate that only 6 to 7 will have a reasonable possibility of survival in the next 20 years. My uncle and elder told me in no uncertain terms that Cree would no longer be spoken in 20 years except by a few pockets scattered across the country. I would say “come on uncle all the experts say Cree is the strongest, we will survive.” But in the cities who speaks Cree? Winnipeg with a population of 60 000 Aboriginal people supposedly has 2000 speakers of Cree. I have met very few though and the ones I have met are invariably elders. We believe the reserves will unquestionably maintain the language, but I am not sure because one of the findings of Dale is that when a school gets a Cree language class into the elementary and high schools the families will stop speaking Cree at home because it is now the schools responsibility. I have been to few reserve communities and when I try to use my broken Cree with some of the young students who want to go to university, they cannot even carry on a simple conversation. The elders can, but the young are too busy watching TV in English, using their iPhone in English and studying at school in English. The language is dying on reserves as well and is maintained only by a few die hard traditionalists. Invariably situations of herd mentality arise. As an example when you have a group of francophones and you add just one anglophone the conversation will invariably end up in English because humans are social animals and we want and need to have communication. It is just easier to speak English, because if the young person cannot understand you then you must take time.

The Louis Riel Institute on November 1 and 2, 2012 organized a mini-conference and workshop with speakers of the Michif language. Michif is the most unique language in the world traditionally spoken by the Métis or Michif people. It is a combination Cree and French. The verbs are based on Cree and the nouns are based on French. Linguists come from around the world to study this unique language. There are currently 640 speakers of Michif in the prairies. The few speakers left who came together with funding from the Aboriginal Language Initiative of Heritage Canada. The elders were concerned in finding how they can preserve their culture and language. It was an emotional few days where you could feel the weight of the many challenges facing those who care about a nation and culture born 300 years ago upon the prairies. Many of the fluent speakers are not getting younger, like elder Rita Flamond who is 81 from Camperville with a passion for her language and a writer of many books. There are though groups creating new initiatives like Leah Laplante, Verna DeMontigny and Norman Fleury from Brandon who hold Family Michif languages classes in the southwest region of the Manitoba Métis Federation and Louis Riel Institute, that are funded through the Aboriginal Language Initiative of Canadian Heritage. While Heritage Canada has been very good at dividing the monies between different language groups across Canada this is certainly just a start.

The saving of a language will be hard daunting fight, but when you take the time to consider how to do so invariably it will be with our children. Children spend 7 hours a day in schools across this province. Unfortunately there are no classes offered in the schools for Michif in Manitoba. My children attend the Manitoba French School Board (DSFM) where they fly the Métis flags, but yet there is little integration of Michif culture into the curriculum. This is not new, for all provincial schools are struggling with integrating a general Aboriginal culture into schools and some more than others. While the DSFM has been very good at preserving a general French culture many of the students like my children are not only French, but the sons and daughters of the Métis, the Michif, a people of bridges and connections. I personally would like to see more done.

You may ask what am I doing, well I have decided that the University of Manitoba will do its part by offering not only Michif languages courses, but Cree and Anishnaabe as well.  Currently there are few university courses in the entire country teaching the Michif language and none in Manitoba. We will not make the mistake of having people who take a language class and can only tell you the names of colours and few numbers, but attempt to teach the real learning of an Aboriginal idea of relationship. We will allow the families including parents, children and grandparents to come together and learn the language. This is a first for university level courses. Participants should be able to learn simple commands that families can use in their daily lives, which they can practise with their children. While this is only a small drop in the bucket of the great need to preserve a language and culture of a people, we each have a role to play. I am committed to finding other initiatives which will allow this unique language not to fade away on the land of its birth. I encourage those who are interested by our Aboriginal languages to advocate and demand that services be made available to preserve our cultures which are older than time.

Marci akwa khitwam.

Dr Robert Falcon Ouellette is a Program Director with the Aboriginal Focus Programs at the University of Manitoba and runs a blog At the Edge of Canada: Indigenous Research 


Ouellette, Robert-Falcon. (Director) (2013, Jan 03). At the Edge of Canada: Indigenous Research. Michif: a Language Born and Near Death on our Native Land. [Blog]. Retrieved from  
Ouellette, Robert-Falcon, dir. "Michif: a Language Born and Near Death on our Native Land." At the Edge of Canada: Indigenous Research.. N.p., 03 Jan 2013. web. 01 03 2013. < ›


  1. Taanshi. Hello.

    Interesting article.... I am wondering if you have looked into the successes of the Master-Apprentice type programs.... Dale McCreery learned Michif by actually living with a Michif-speaking elder for about five months while doing recordings and transcribing them as an assistant on a research project. Listening and speaking is the key! This is was as close to immersion as one can get for Michif or other languages that have few speakers.... It would be great if native speakers of Michif were empowered to take young people who want to be educators and/or linguists into their lives with the express desire to pass on the Michif language and our culture as a communal treasure/resource....

    Also, I feel it is imperative that we empower Native speakers to tell stories in Michif and then record (audio and video when possible) and transcribe them for publication (with an English translation relegated to the back of the books?!) We need to move the focus from translations of English into Michif to stories created and/or told Michif to start with! The way in which stories are told in Michif is so very different than English.... Without learning this from experiencing Language is NOT about simply translating words or sentences. It is much more than that.... We need to get into the flow of the language and that can only happen when you are "inside" Michif and not trying to force the language into structures that are foreign to it.

    Check out the Indigenous Language Institute:
    For example, they have wonderful workshops where Elders and others together learn how to create print and recorded materials in their languages. Participants can come away with a finished children's book that immediately can be put to use to learn/teach the language....

    There are many other resources out there that give the power to the people who want to learn, to teach and to share their languages so that NEW speakers evolve and the languages are spoken by the next generation and those beyond. It needs to be grassroots and community-based....

    As you have noted, families are key to the survival of any language and/or culture.... I am excited to see where your initiative takes our languages!

    1. Heather, Tansai

      marci for the words

      While studying music in the 90s and 2000s I was aware that the Master apprentice programs are able to produce very highly qualified individuals. Almost all people who were learning a trade in 1700s and 1800s were apprenticed to a master, and lived with the master and his family. In my case I looked a musicians guilds. An individual at age ten would be assigned a master who would teach him the art of trumpet playing, this might entail defending one person for musicians were used on the battlefield, reading music, proper sound formation, dress, reading, writing, playing in various situations such as at a court, church, parade or the calls to be made on the battlefield. After 3-5 years the apprentice would be skilled enough that they would be free to join the guild as a fully fledged member. They were able to produce very skilled musicians that functioned well within society.

      The master-apprentice system applies equally well to all trades and industries. It is one on one teaching. The Western model has gotten away from this system because it is very expensive and while producing excellent results, no longer corresponds to the mass produced economy that we use in the neo-liberal world. We have created an education system which is to produce individuals with little in depth knowledge of an industry or area, but who are able to function as industrial cogs and fit into various jobs. The problem with a system of master-apprentice is very few universities will allow a program to exist where 1 individual will learn a language with a master on a full time basis. They simply cannot afford it. The only programs still doing training like this is the medical field and the music faculties. Even here it is very limited. Music is always being cut back and the medical fields are seen as too important. This is a tough nut to crack because for every one person who learns the language many more have the language taken from them.


  2. Taanshi, Robert,

    Take a look at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks Alaska Native Language Center. They were (and still may be) teaching endangered indigenous languages with an official "instructor of record" and fluent speakers Elders. As far as I understnad, they were also using the Internet (Skype) to bridge (albeit not perfectly) the distance between students having to attend university and Elders living in rural areas. I don't know how the Elders were honored/paid for their work. There never is a enough money for things like this but there are Elders out there who get involved because they LOVE the language and not because they will be paid.... (They, of course, need to be honored/paid in some manner but it may not need to be in currency.... We need to think creatively, traditionally and practically--outside of the colonial institutional box!) Just some more thoughts....

  3. Heather, you do have kind words to share. The situation is yet the same as it was for many, many years past. Elders, or language speakers are seldom recognized for their time - financially. It is unfortunate that in most cases they are expected to do these language services for next to nothing. WHY? What is often not shared outloud is that, the extremely important cultural processes and thought processes are sadly lost when the languages are lost. I personally prefer to think in my language and most importantly - dream in my original language.

  4. It does not surprise me that the Cree language is slowly declining in the number of people who can speak it. In fact, according to National Geographic, it is estimated that over half of all the languages in the world will go extinct within 100 years ( A large number of countries out there are teaching the English language in class, they are watching more English television because all of the ‘good’ shows play in that language, and more and more people are moving to Canada and the United States and away from their native countries.

    Once people move to North America, they are forced to learn English because that is how schools teach, it is the language people generally speak on the streets, and it is a common language used by most in stores, at restaurants, and at other places outside of the home. If you don’t make a point of speaking your native language, then you will be quick to lose it. I know some people who are first generation immigrants and they are having a difficult time speaking their first language now because it is very rarely practiced. It is spoken by their parents at home, but they still speak English.

    A parent also needs to make a point of teaching their children their native tongue as well. Both of my parents speak German, however my siblings and I did not ever learn how to speak it. Because of this, the German language will be lost in our family line unless we decide to take it upon ourselves to learn the language as adults.

    As languages around the world are decreasing, the Cree language will also have a more difficult time staying afloat. It does make it more frustrating that people are claiming to know the language even though they don’t. This may mean that people will not work as hard to keep the language alive if they think that there are still a lot of the population that can still speak it.

  5. Language is power. Language is culture. Language is communication. Language is how we express ourselves, how we are connected to one another, and even part of how we define ourselves. The loss of Aboriginal languages in Canada is disastrous. “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 doesn’t necessarily lead to the death of a culture, it can severely handicap transmission of that culture” (Norris, 1998, p. 8). Integration of Aboriginal culture into the classroom is slowly and with difficulty happening. What needs to be realized is that language is a crucial part of culture and needs to be part of education.

    The blog points out that even those who are trying to learn Aboriginal languages are failing: “I try to use my broken Cree with some of the young students who want to go to university, they cannot even carry on a simple conversation. The elders can, but the young are too busy watching TV in English, using their iPhone in English and studying at school in English” (Ouellette, 2013, para. 3). I think this is a problem that other languages in Canada face although not to the near extinction of Cree and other Aboriginal languages. With the pushing of Aboriginal culture into schools I wonder why Aboriginal language is not also being integrated. Is it because of lack of teachers who can properly instruct these languages? I think that schools need to somehow start incorporating classes to teach these students even in small capacities. Societies need to also take more responsibility and start offering classes for children, adults, Aboriginal and non-aboriginal so that the more people speak these languages the more people that can teach them. If parents and others can start teaching their children at home and in their communities than perhaps language extinction can be avoided.

    We need to take responsibility in our schools to be inclusive to everyone but at the same time we do not have enough resources, time, or capable teachers to teach a language that most do not know. I think that Aboriginal languages should have just as much (if not more) of a right to be taught in schools than German, Spanish, French, etc. In order to preserve these languages that are a fundamental part of Canada we need to start offering chances to learn and use Aboriginal languages. Perhaps we can start by even learning and incorporating basic phrases, poems, and literature into our classes as well as exploring the history and culture of Aboriginal peoples.


    Norris, M. J. (1998, Winter). Canada's Aboriginal Languages . Canadian Social Trends, 11-008, 8-16.

  6. Language is such a vital part of any culture. It allows a culture to express who they are and what they are feeling through speech. People are able to make connections with others through language. Finding out someone speaks the same language as you can unite people when they are far from their country of origin. Language allows culture to pass on traditions orally through many generations and allows people to build on their identity. Having language disappear would be a tragedy to any culture. Those people who are a part of that culture have lost that identifiable factor and are not able to carry on that aspect. This blog post had me reflecting on my own experience with language. Learning a language later on in your life is extremely tough. Hearing about that post-secondary Cree class, reminded me about how I went through that same process to learn Spanish. It baffles me that the students coming out of that class could not even say hello in Cree. I agree with what was said about those students wasting not only their time and money, but the chance to keep that language alive (Ouellette, 2013). Most of my Spanish language learning came from post-secondary classes. Growing up I had exposure to the language, but it was not enough to make me a fluent speaker today. I feel like if my Dad exposed the language to me more when I was younger, I would have a better grasp of it as an adult.

    Relating this to the disappearance of the Cree language, I think there needs to be a balance between exposure at home and within the school system. I think students should be able to have that school exposure starting in elementary school. Having that early exposure will allow students’ to continue their learning and understanding throughout their schooling. The difficulties in achieving that exposure starts with the lack of elementary schools that offer the teaching of Aboriginal languages. Marcel Balfour, who is the chief of Norway House has been pushing the Frontier School division to implement Cree immersion schools within the division (Santin, 2009). An article in the Winnipeg Free Press describes his want for the people of Norway House to be proficient in the Cree language by 2020 (Santin, 2009). Getting school divisions to take interest in this loss of language is the tough part. Schools need to be on board and willing to add different programs for Aboriginal languages in early years education. Once they reach that university setting they will hopefully have those basic understandings, so that they can focus on the fluency of the language. Throughout the learning process, if students can be exposed to the language via other forms, like parents, community, etc., I think it will set those students up for better success. This will then secure the preservation of the Cree language. The Kindergarten to Grade 12 Aboriginal Languages and Culture document provides a framework and curriculum to help teachers in teaching this language. It states that there needs to be an “enhanced role of the language in the home and community, especially for Aboriginal learners, but also for non-Aboriginal learners who have connections to Aboriginal families and communities” (Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth, 2007, p.23). They need to have those opportunities to practice speaking and interact with other people who speak the Cree language. They need to put their knowledge and understanding into use.
    Santin, Aldo. (2009, May 9). Language challenge for Cree nation. Winnipeg Free Press. Retrieved from nation-44633742.html.
    Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth. (2007). Kindergarten to Grade 12 Aboriginal Languages and Culture. Retrieved from
    Ouellette, Robert-Falcon. (Director) (2013, Jan 03). At the Edge of Canada:Indigenous Research. Michif: a Language Born and Near Death on our Native Land. [Blog]. Retrieved from