At the Edge of Canada: Indigenous Research presents interviews with researchers about their work with Aboriginal peoples. The objective is to assist people in better understanding Indigenous people, our issues and the often asked Google term “what is aboriginal.” It is originally produced as a radio broadcast on UMFM 101.5 FM in Winnipeg Manitoba and hosted by Dr Robert-Falcon Ouellette while working at University of Manitoba. He is now an Member of Parliament in Ottawa. Ekosani.
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 www.attheedgeofcanada.blogspot.com
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 fromhttp://www.attheedgeofcanada.com
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. <http://www.attheedgeofcanada.com ›