First Cree lesson draws dozens to North End community centre

Ralph Brown Community Centre was transformed into a coffee house and classroom Tuesday night, catering to Cree speakers and those who want to learn the language.

Ralph Brown Community Centre hopes to offer regular Cree lessons with Aboriginal Youth Opportunities

A Ralph Brown Community Centre board member chats with people who showed up to the centre's first-ever Speak Cree? event. (Dave Gaudet/CBC)

Ralph Brown Community Centre was transformed into a coffee house and classroom Tuesday night, catering to Cree speakers and those who want to learn the language.

About 30 people turned up just for the chance to speak their language, meet others who use it and teach those who want to learn.

It was the first ever Speak Cree? event at the centre, which is trying to branch out from after-school kids' programming to more events for adults in the community.

"We have a member on our board who has a grandmother who is a lifelong Cree speaker who was interested in having someone to speak her language to," said Nathan Wilde, the president of the centre's board. "As we were talking about diversifying our programming at the community centre, she said, 'Well hey, wouldn't it be nice if I had somewhere my gran could come and just drink coffee and speak Cree?'"

That led to a collaboration with Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, who were looking for a spot to offer free, drop-in Cree lessons.

"It's not like a class, it's more of a space to get together. I'm hoping there's fluent speakers who can lead some conversation — just kind of mingling and getting to know each other," said Quinton Delorme, who works with AYO.

Delorme said before he went to university, he couldn't find anywhere to learn Cree for free.

"When you're walking down the street or on the bus, you hear people speaking English or maybe French but never really Cree or Ojibway or Dene," he said.  "Winnipeg has the highest urban Indigenous population in Canada so it's really important for Indigenous people in this area to have a place to come to learn their language or speak it."

25-year-old Shanley Spence came all the way from Wolseley for a chance to practice her Cree.

She's a full-time hoop dancer who travels to a number of different communities to perform and to teach young people how to hoop dance.

"I myself am both Cree and Ojibway," she said. "I grew up not knowing the language, so I've just been trying to learn … It is really hard, but I think definitely worth it if we want to keep the language and culture alive."

Aboriginal Youth Opportunities' Quinton Delorme says opportunities to learn Cree for free in the North End are scarce. (Dave Gaudet/CBC)

Her mother, Melanie Dean, joined her.

She said there are few opportunities to use Cree at work or at home, so she jumped at the chance to meet new people who speak it.

"Speaking the language connects us to the land, and it's very important to me, especially now, later in life," she said. "It's who we are. It's what our identity is. It's one step closer to our ancestors."

Some groups use flash cards, others had binders and notes, and some just had cups of coffee in front of them, comparing multiple ways to say different words.

"We were a little spooked actually when we looked and saw 280 people [RSVPed] after a couple of days. We were like, 'Are we going to have enough coffee for that many people? Are we going to have enough space?'" said Wilde. "This is definitely a segment of our community that needs representing and need space to do it."

Delorme said he hopes the events can continue on a regular basis and that other community centres across the city are inspired to follow suit.

Dean said if that happens, she'll be there.

"It has to be an everyday thing, so even if something like this allows the space for people to come in and speak and meet new people a couple times a week, I'll take it!" she said. "I'm going to have grandchildren one day, so we should learn as much as we can."

Some people used flash cards, others used notebooks and some didn't need any notes at all — they just came to speak Cree with others who knew the language. (Dave Gaudet/CBC)