How a school in northern Alberta is protecting Cree and Dene language and culture

A northern Alberta school is bringing Indigenous language and culture to the forefront of education after leaders removed the previous school board and started working with a new one.

'I feel like I'm that fire that's igniting the students,' one instructor says

Two people are shown with the head of a moose on a table in a classroom.
Elders show students at Athabasca Delta Community School in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., how to skin the head of a moose. (Submitted by Priscilla St. Pierre)

A northern Alberta school is bringing Indigenous language and culture to the forefront of education after leaders removed the previous school board and started working with a new one. 

This is the first school year that the Athabasca Delta Community School in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., 700 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, has operated under the Parkland School Division, based in Stony Plain, near Edmonton.

Last year, after years of leaders in Fort Chipewyan speaking out about an education crisis in the area, the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Fort Chipewyan Métis Association came together to get the school to switch to Parkland from its previous school division.

The First Nations are working to establish their own education authority and eventually take over the school.

In the meantime, they are working with the Parkland school board to bring in more culture and language programming, to help the next generation learn the culture.

Cree instructor Helena Welsh said the work she's been doing at the school has been part of her healing journey.

A residential school survivor who was punished for speaking her language, she now teaches Cree to students across Fort Chipewyan. 

An elder sits in a chair facing a class of students seated on the floor.
An elder tells students stories during the Athabasca Delta Community School's mini Métis festival. (Submitted by Priscilla St. Pierre)

"Those students are my healers, my supporters because they're co-operating and participating with me," Welsh said. 

"It's very important for everybody … to take back what they were prevented from using."

Sharing her language and stories has been "a healing road for me," she said.

Welsh has been teaching Cree at the school for three years, but said this year is different, with a greater focus on bringing culture into the school and incorporating language into the activities.

For example, local hunters killed a moose and donated it to the school.

Roy Ladouceur was the elder who taught the students about the moose. Speaking in Cree, he taught the students that every part of the moose can be used. Bones can be made into tools. Fur can be used to stuff sled dogs' collars so they don't get hurt.

Ladouceur, 68, said he works with students to "remind them of who they are."

A man cuts up a piece of moose meat while children look on.
Students watch an elder cut up a moose during the school's mini Métis festival. (Submitted by Priscilla St. Pierre)

"We've got to keep the tradition alive and ongoing," he said.

"I always speak out in Cree," Ladouceur said. "We keep on reminding the young people not to lose … their language and who they are."

Dene instructor Priscilla St. Pierre started teaching her language to students last March. This year the school brought in elders to tell stories. Parks Canada staff demonstrated a muskrat dissection.

The experiences have resonated with students, St. Pierre said.

"It's pretty exciting," she said. "Our language is who we are as Indigenous people and we have been blessed with a gift. And to promote that and to allow our children to recognize that within themselves is very important." 

She said last year the language classes were for students up to Grade 6, but since the school board change, they are now being taught to students up to Grade 9.

A man cuts into a muskrat in front of two young students.
Students participate in a muskrat dissection with Parks Canada staff. (Submitted by Priscilla St. Pierre)

St. Pierre said the work has helped her reconnect to her language. She said she appreciates the opportunity to pass her knowledge along to kids in the community. 

"I feel like I'm that fire that's igniting the students and igniting that spark within them," she said. 

Cree language revitalization consultant Rita Marten said the school board reached out to the community leaders, and invited a group of elders to teach Indigenous studies. 

"The way that the Mikisew Cree Nation has excelled over the years is by continuing on with our ancestor's way of life and including new and innovative education … that will enhance the Cree language," Marten said. 

She said while language has been taught in the school before, the way it's being done is different. 

Students and an elder gather around a large piece of moose meat on a table.
Students learning how to cut up moose meat. (Submitted by Priscilla St. Pierre)

Dean Bernard, division principal of northern and Indigenous relations for Parkland School Division, said the language program offered at the Fort Chipewyan school is unique in that two languages are being offered for students up to the Grade 9 level.

Bernard said teaching language has to happen throughout the school, not just in language classes. For example, he said one of the science teachers has a solar system in his room with the Cree syllabics attached.

The programming was brought in because it's what the community asked for, said Bernard. 

"They were very passionate about making sure that those languages were there," he said.

While there were language classes in the school before Parkland took over, Bernard said the division is focusing on making sure the language is present throughout the school, and on bringing in more programming. 

The goal is to have students speaking the languages fluently when they finish Grade 12.


Jamie Malbeuf is a reporter with CBC News, based in Fort McMurray. She started her career with CBC in 2017, after graduating from MacEwan University with a major in journalism. She covers a range of topics including health, justice and housing. Follow her on Twitter @JamieMalbeuf. Send story ideas to jamie.malbeuf@cbc.ca.