'When we speak we regain our identity': ACAD course keeps Dené language alive

Twenty-five students at the Alberta College of Art and Design's Lodgepole Centre are studying the at-risk Dené language.

25 students are enrolled in the free course

Tsuut'ina Elder Bruce Starlight is teaching a free Dené language course at ACAD. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

Jo-Mary Crowchild-Fletcher stumbles through the consonant-heavy syllables as she repeats along with the rest of the class: "Ts'i, ts'a, ts'o, ts'u."

She's one of 25 students at the Alberta College of Art and Design's Lodgepole Centre studying the at-risk Dené language.

Crowchild-Fletcher is Tsuut'ina, but grew up in the B.C. foster system — so she never had the opportunity to learn her ancestral tongue. She hopes to be able to speak Dené not just conversationally, but in traditional ceremonies.

"It's spiritual and it's holistic in a sense that a piece of me I didn't have growing up, it's returned to me," she said.

Jo-Mary Crowchild-Fletcher is one of 25 students learning Dené at ACAD. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

The free, 10-week pilot program — which runs from October to December — is funded by the federal government. It was created in response to a call to action developed by the Truth and Reconciliation commission, that found there's an urgency to preserve disappearing Indigenous languages.

Tsuut'ina Language Commissioner Elder Bruce Starlight teaches the class. 

He said while hundreds of thousands of people come from a Dené background — "the Navajo, Apache, and all of the people between the treeline and the muskeg up north" — some of the dialects are critically endangered, including Tsuut'ina, which he said has only 37 speakers.

Free transportation is offered for those travelling from Tsuut'ina First Nation to ACAD's Lodgepole Centre, where the Dené language classes are held. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

"Our language is holy, it was given by the creator," Starlight said.

"It's considered an extinct language but we're still speaking it and trying to keep it alive through our young people. They're the ones who're the carriers of the knowledge."

Starlight's first language was Tsuut'ina, but when he went to school he was forbidden from speaking it and instead forced to speak English, an indignity he describes as an attempt to eradicate his very identity.

"So when we speak, we regain our identity," he said.

13,000 Dené speakers in Canada

According to the 2016 census, there are about 13,000 Dené speakers in Canada, with 15 per cent of speakers residing in Alberta.

Tina Kinnee-Brown, ACAD's Indigenous coordinator, said Starlight's class was in high demand, with all 25 spaces filled within days of the program's announcement and another 40 people on the waitlist.

"I was very thrilled of the interest and desire to learn this language," she said.

As well as the in-person class, the program will create audio lessons and a dictionary which will be made available to the general public.

Kinnee-Brown said she's extremely proud to be involved with the program.

"I thought if I had the opportunity, it's sort of my responsibility to try to do something to revitalize and help save that language," she said.

With files from Nelly Alberola