Regional language engagement session puts everyone on the same page

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It may be odd to say, but in order to preserve the Cree language, the Crees need to speak to each other. That’s why a number of entities sent representatives to the Eeyou Istchee Regional Language Engagement Session March 13-15.

“No matter how we define our future, and no matter how the future unfolds for us, we need to ensure that our work to protect and promote our Cree language continues. There is no guarantee in advance, and there is no definitive certainty, that our Cree language will survive unless we undertake aggressive measures to ensure its survival,” said Grand Chief Abel Bosum to open the session in Oujé-Bougoumou.

Organized by the CNG’s Social and Cultural Development Department, the session brought together groups who contribute to Cree language preservation to better coordinate their efforts.

According to the department’s Dorothy Stewart, the last time that there had been an engagement session was in the late 1990s, and this conference was long overdue. Once the data is compiled from the event, recommendations will be presented at the AGA in August.

“What came out of this is that we have to find way to use our language every day and not necessarily correct it because we want it to be immersive and correcting people is only going to be discouraging. We want it to be embracing and we want the children to be happy to hear their own language and to be able to use it when they can,” said Stewart.

“The Elders really stressed that, I feel this because I am a grandmother now, and speaking the language is part of our identity and so that is why it is necessary to maintain it.”

Of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, experts predict that only 600 of them will survive into the next century, the Grand Chief noted in his address.

“It is not guaranteed that Cree will be one of these languages,” emphasized Bosum. “With our relatively small population of 20,000 people, in a context in which we are surrounded by French and English, we have our work cut out for us. The situation requires that we mount an ambitious and aggressive campaign to ensure the continuity of our Cree language.”

In an interview, Bosum said that the Cree are fortunate to have Elders and other community members who speak a pure, traditional Cree. While he spoke mainly Cree as a small child, he lost a great deal of it during the 10 years he spent at residential school. After he returned he had to work to regain the precious gift that he had lost.

“I learned it all over again when I started working for the Grand Council in 1977 because it was very important to be able to communicate in both the southern and the northern dialects. I can’t say I’m fluent in either of them but I can understand about 90% of what is being said,” said the Grand Chief.

Bosum noted that the session allowed new allies to emerge when it came to preserving and learning language.

“Our Cree hunters and trappers really are our resource people,” he pointed out. “We need to think differently because these are people who are out living on the land and have a very strong Cree language. We have to bridge that gap between traditional people and those who aren’t as traditional. Some of our teaching needs to be land-based and so I am sure we can find something to contract out to the hunters and trappers.”

Specific people were recognized for their language-preservation efforts. Among them was the voice of the JBCCS, Luke Macleod, who has worked in Cree radio for almost 40 years. He received the Josie Sam Atkinson Award for Achievement in the Use of Cree Language in the Media.

“When I started with this back in 1981, I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it, being on the air and people calling all of the time to correct you but people really appreciated that we had something that was ours,” Macleod commented. “Today, after all these years, close to 40 years, I have an appreciation for how valuable the language really is.”

One Elder at the session told Macleod how happy it makes her to turn on the radio and know that it will be in Cree.

Still, he echoed the thoughts of many who attended: while it is excellent to have Cree in media, administration and schools, the most important place for Cree is in the home. “Crees need to talk to their families in Cree,” said Macleod, “that is why they call it ‘mother tongue’.”


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