MoCreebec launches Cree-language classes

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When Alyssa Gunner traveled from Moose Factory to Chisasibi this summer for a youth gathering, she said she felt “out of place” because she could not communicate in Cree.

Gunner was one of seven MoCreebec youth who went to the meeting in Chisasibi, which aimed to teach youth from across Eeyou Istchee about the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. But the Moose Factory delegates only spoke English. Over the course of the four-day gathering, participants helped translate the event from Cree to English so that MoCreebec youth could understand.

When the gathering was over, Gunner stood up in front of the group and thanked everyone for the time and patience it had taken to translate. Then she pledged to do all she could to bring Cree-language classes to MoCreebec.

“Next time we all come together again for anything like this, I hope that we’re able to speak Cree, or at least understand it,” said Gunner, who is MoCreebec’s youth program coordinator.

“It really touched the hearts of the Cree teachers who were there,” said MoCreebec Chief Allan Jolly.

Three months later, MoCreebec held its first Cree language workshop in Moose Factory.

More than 30 community members of all ages attended a weekend of language classes in September. Theresa Kakabat-Georgekish and Jeremiah Mishtaachiishikw, two Cree-language teachers, traveled to Moose Factory from Wemindji to lead the sessions. Participants ranged from 12 to 60 years old. Some had never spoken Cree before; others could speak but not read it.

“The enthusiasm was there, it’s obvious,” said Chief Jolly, who speaks Cree but hopes to learn syllabics through the classes.

The September classes were only a starting point: for the next four months, Kakabat-Georgekish will lead weekly classes for the MoCreebec community over video conference call. Seven students started the virtual classes on October 11. They originally planned to meet every two weeks, but quickly decided to meet weekly instead once it sunk in how much work it takes to learn a language, Gunner said.

The workshops are a remedy for a community at “high risk” of losing the Cree language all together, Jolly said.

A 1987 survey conducted among MoCreebec members showed that 21% of people under 40 considered Cree their primary language compared to 73% of respondents over 40. Only 1% of survey respondents under 40 said they exclusively spoke Cree at home.

Chief Jolly, who is 68, grew up speaking Cree but did not pass the language on to his children.

“Once my generation dies off, if we don’t do something about it, we’re going to have lost our language,” Jolly said.

MoCreebec’s location on the western coast of James Bay has made it harder for the community to keep the Cree language alive, Jolly said.

Decisions by the federal government led Cree people to come from the eastern to the western coast of James Bay, he said. That included establishing residential schools and a federal hospital that serviced Cree people from both sides of the bay. “We became a displaced people,” Jolly said.

Jolly was born and raised in Waskaganish, but went to residential school in Moose Factory at the age of nine. “All of the kids who were in the residential school in Moose Factory were from the Quebec Cree communities,” he said.

The Cree Nation recognized MoCreebec as the 11th Cree community in November 2017. Jolly hopes that recognition will serve as a “starting block” for the community’s linguistic and cultural revival.

“We’re not as immersed in cultural activities that are happening in the Cree communities because we’ve become kind of disconnected from our own cultural roots,” said Jolly. “But we’re trying to bring that back.”

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