New Brunswick

'It's a big-time gift': Mi'kmaq speakers create new immersion curriculum

They may be a small minority, but first-language Mi'kmaq speakers are trying to make a big difference at the Alaqsite'w Gitpu School on the Listuguj First Nation.

The Alaqsite'w Gitpu School offers a Mi'kmaq immersion program for students on the Listuguj First Nation

Vicky Metallic, 37, and Lola Vicaire, 30, some of the youngest Mi'kmaq speakers in Listuguj, hold a new series of children's books they helped to create for the Alaqsite'w Gitpu School's immersion program. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

They may be a small minority, but first-language Mi'kmaq speakers are trying to make a big difference at the Alaqsite'w Gitpu School on the Listuguj First Nation.

The school has been offering a Mi'kmaq immersion program for students from kindergarten to Grade 4 since 2002 and is now taking the next step and developing its own curriculum.

Since September, Mary Ann Metallic, 66, has been working with a group of Mi'kmaq speakers in an effort to improve their fluency, along with their reading and writing.

They are using those improved skills to create the new curriculum for students in their native language.

Mary Ann Metallic is helping a group of first-language Mi'kmaq speakers to improve their fluency and create new curriculum for the Alaqsite'w Gitpu School. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

"We did an informal survey of the number of speakers that we have in the community, and we can safely say that … less than 10 per cent of our population are speakers," says Metallic.

We're not just translating curriculum from English to Mi'kmaq. We're developing it from our point of view.- Vicky Metallic

Vicky Metallic, 37, who is Mary Ann 's daughter, is part of the team of curriculum developers creating new resources that will help students to continue learning in their native language.

"We're not just translating curriculum from English to Mi'kmaq. We're developing it from our point of view. From the Mi'kmaq world view and it comes from our language."

Vicky and her team have already written 10 children's books that are entirely in Mi'kmaq. They are now being printed and will be shared with students in the fall. The book Vicky created was about jumping frogs.

A series of 10 books is now being printed for elementary Mi'kmaq immersion students at the Alaqsite'w Gitpu School. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

"What I like is that is that we use a lot of local environments … so when the children read they not only read the language but they also get to see the setting from their own backyards. So it gives them a sense of place and belonging."

Mi'kmaq immersion has been available to students in Listiguj since 2002. Now educators there are re-writing the curriculum. 9:16

'They're drowning in the English language'

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Mary Ann lived in the country and all of her family and friends spoke Mi'kmaq.

"Inside the house the language was spoken. I went to my grandparents and the language was spoken. Cousins. So if I encounter people along the road at that time — I heard the language. But today our kids don't have those opportunities to hear the language anymore."

At the immersion program, students and teachers are asked to speak only in Mi'kmaq. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Mary Ann has been working to revitalize her language for more than a decade and says the gap between speakers and children in the community is growing.

"I used to teach language and [students] would say, 'Oh, my mom speaks and I'm trying to learn the language and my mom is helping me.' Today we have students that have no one that they can go to, to help them learn the language."

I kind of regret not speaking to him in Mi'kmaq when he was younger. I mean we were just surrounded, so [English] almost becomes the default language that we start to use.- Vicky Metallic

Even those like her, who grew up with Mi'kmaq as their first language, feel they are "being swallowed up by the English language," she says.

"They're drowning in the English language because all the media is in the language, their environment is in the language. They go home — they have to speak because their children don't understand, or grandchildren don't understand, so they find themselves losing the language themselves."

Vicky admits that even though her mother is a champion of their language, and even though she grew up speaking Mi'kmaq, she still found herself speaking to her now five-year-old son in English.

"I kind of regret not speaking to him in Mi'kmaq when he was younger. I mean we were just surrounded, so [English] almost becomes the default language that we start to use."

Her son is now in the Mi'kmaq immersion program and she says he is excited.

"He comes home and he asks me, 'How do you say this in Mi'kmaq? How do you say that in Mi'kmaq?' so it doesn't just stay in a classroom. He brings it home."

'I'm proud of myself'

Grade 4 immersion student Saydee Vicaire says she speaks more Mi'kmaq than English, and even dreams in Mi'kmaq.

Mi'kmaq immersion teacher Shanna Francis, seen here with students Saydee Vicaire, left, and Alyiah Wysote, says being able to speak her native language allows her to express who she is. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Saydee explains that she feels many emotions when she speaks Mi'kmaq, including a connection to her late grandfather, who died when she was six.

"I'm proud of myself that I can speak … because my grandfather taught me to, and I miss him a lot. That's why I like to speak."

Teacher Shanna Francis asks Saydee in Mi'kmaq if she hopes to see other children speaking the language more when she is older and Saydee quickly nods her head yes.

"I've been a fluent speaker my entire life, so I'm really passionate about passing the language down to our younger generations," says Francis.

She grew up speaking Mi'kmaq in Eskasoni, N.S., which leads the way in immersion, and says being able to speak in your mother tongue "is everything."

"Without it we wouldn't really know who we are or be able to express who we are."

Passing on Mi'kmaq a 'responsibility'

Lola Vicaire, 30, who is one of the youngest first-language speakers in Listuguj, says that growing up, none of her friends spoke Mi'kmaq.

"It felt very awkward," she says. "I was immediately out of place."

Mary Ann Metallic, second from left, spends every day teaching other first-language Mi'kmaq speakers. An informal survey shows fewer than 10 per cent of the Listuguj population speaks the language. From left: Lilian Germain, Mary Ann Metallic, Blanche Metallic, Lola Vicaire, Marilyn Jacques and Vicky Metallic. Missing from the photo are instructor Janice Vicaire and Jessica Metallic. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Now, as part of the team that's working to develop curriculum, she says having the opportunity to learn Mi'kmaq as a child was "a big-time gift."

"This is a part of who we are. Not many people have this gift that we have … it's almost like your responsibility to pass on the language. That's how I see it. It's a big part of who I am."

As a class of Grade 1 and 2 students recite their daily prayer in Mi'kmaq, thanking the creator for everything they have been given, Vicky Metallic smiles.

"It's for the children. To make sure that they go through school with a real sense of knowing who they are and where they belong."

About the Author

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please email: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

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