Q&A: 'Reluctant author' uses children's books to preserve Mi'kmaw language

Michael James Isaac says his experience growing up in Listuguj, a Mi'kmaw community in Quebec's Gaspé region, inspired his stories.

Michael James Isaac says his experience growing up in Mi'kmaw community in Quebec inspired his stories

Author Michael James Isaac says he still feels like he is caught between two worlds. (courtesy Fernwood Publishing)

Michael James Isaac never set out to become an author.

The principal at New Richmond High School in Quebec's Gaspé region, he spent nearly 15 years in law enforcement, including as the chief of police in Cape Breton, N.S.

Isaac also now has two children's books to his name.

His journey began in the Mi'kmaw community of Listuguj, in the Gaspé, just across the Restigouche River from New Brunswick — and he never forgot his roots.

In fact, it was there that he got the inspiration for his first book, How the Cougar Came to be Called the Ghost Cat / Ta'n Petalu Telui'tut Skite'kmujewe, published in English and Mi'kmaw, as well as in French and Mi'kmaw.

The book tells the story of a cougar separated from his community, and must learn to play and act differently in order to assimilate with other animals.

His first book, How the Cougar Came to be Called the Ghost Cat / Ta’n Petalu Telui’tut Skite’kmujewe, was published in Mi'kmaw and English, as well as in Mi'kmaw and French. (Saroja Coelho / CBC)

In his second book, The Lost Teachings / Panuijkatasikl Kina'masuti'l, an eagle learns about the dangers of envy and greed while on a mission to save the forest.

Isaac spoke with CBC News about the experiences that laid the groundwork for his books — and how they fit into a larger effort to rebuild the Mi'kmaw language.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


On what it meant to speak Mi'kmaw growing up:

I was hearing the language at home right up until age five or six, [from] relatives [and] grandparents.

[In] the school we were attending in Listiguj, St. Ann's Elementary School, [a public Catholic school], our language was frowned upon. If I was speaking Mi'kmaw with my friends and colleagues, some of the staff would feel that we were speaking [about] them.

Language is an integral part of anyone's identity, especially Indigenous people. As a result of not having that language, we see a lot of young Mi'kmaw people missing bits and pieces of their identity.- Michael James Isaac

I can remember a number of instances where we were told not to speak in class — either told very sternly, 'Stop speaking Mi'kmaw,' or teachers close by would pull your hair and again, indicate 'Stop speaking Mi'kmaw.'

It got to a point where experiencing pain as a result of speaking our language was something that was frequent.

At one time, I remember going to the principal's office and yes, being strapped for that very reason. And, that in itself, psychologically told me that if I wanted to avoid the pain and punishment, to not speak Mi'kmaw.

On the impact of losing the language:

As I got older, it was confusing. Why wasn't my language honoured or valued? Why was it that I couldn't speak my language? Over a period not hearing it and not verbalizing it, you tend to lose your ability to [speak] the language.

Language is an integral part of anyone's identity, especially Indigenous people. As a result of not having that language, we see a lot of young Mi'kmaw people missing bits and pieces of their identity, and sometimes as a result of that they get to being more deviant.

The book tells the story of a young cougar who is separated from his community, and must learn to change his behaviour to fit in with other animals.

I was in law enforcement for some time. A lot of the young people I dealt with, they were lacking [an] identity. Everyone wants to be accepted. They want to be a part of something or a group. And, sometimes they will veer off to a group that is probably not really favourable for them and they will get into trouble.

On going from police officer to an educator:

I got into law enforcement to help my people. [Then I asked], what other vocation and career can I get into that's going to allow for me to do that again? The only thing that came to mind was education —​ become a teacher. This way, I can be more proactive in reaching young people well before they get into trouble with the law.

On becoming an author:

I was a reluctant author.

When I was going to school at Saint FX [St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.], taking my bachelor of education degree, one of the assignments in the course was to write a children's book with a moral and a lesson.

A week before the assignment was due, [I was] pacing in my apartment. I [didn't] see myself as an author. Then I reflected on my experience at St. Ann's school. It just sort of fell into place, [thanks to] my experience there.

On living in two worlds:

In the book, Ajig [the main character] has to live in two worlds. Living in two words has a price, and that price is your soul — never really fitting in.

I still feel it today. I still have to live in two worlds. I still have to adjust in the Eurocentric world, and I still have to adjust in the Mi'kmaw world.