Quebec Cree pass language act as its 1st-ever legislation

Quebec Cree are celebrating the passing of their government's first law — Bill 1, or the Cree Language Act of Eeyou Istchee.

Act outlines creation of Cree language commission and hiring of a Cree language commissioner

The Cree Language Act of Eeyou Istchee was passed Sept. 17 in Waswanipi, Que. Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum, second from right, and Cree School Board chair Sarah Pash, third from the right, are at a language conference in Wemindji, Que. on Sept. 18, the day after the act passed. (Grand Council of the Cree, Eeyou Istchee)

Quebec Cree are celebrating the passing of their government's first-ever law — the Cree Language Act of Eeyou Istchee. 

Bill 1, as it is known, was passed last Tuesday in Waswanipi, Que., at a meeting of the board of directors of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) and the Council of the Cree Nation Government. 

For Grand Chief Abel Bosum, it makes sense for language to be the focus of the first legislation passed since the Cree Nation achieved self-governance in 2017. 

"It speaks to the importance of language," said Bosum.

"We want to be able to pass this language and its links to culture [and territory] and so forth on to our children." 

The act sets out a plan to measure the health of the Cree language spoken on the east side of James Bay and put in motion ways to reclaim, revitalize and strengthen it, according to Bosum. A steering committee of language experts is being put together to begin that work.

We want to pass language on to our children.- Abel Bosum, grand chief of the Quebec Cree

While there are no recent statistics to show levels of Cree spoken in Quebec, Bosum and others say there is a general and real concern it is losing ground fast.

A language survey is currently underway to assess language levels at all ages. The last survey of its kind was carried out in 1989.

The new act outlines the establishment of a Cree language commission and the hiring of a Cree language commissioner — a position Bosum hopes will be filled before Christmas. It will be a five-year term.

This comes as very good news for Sarah Pash, chair of the Cree School Board. 

"The Cree language commission is key to everything we want to do with language in the future," she said, adding that there is huge need for research to understand and develop techniques and programming to target Cree language learners.

The Cree Language Act of Eeyou Istchee was presented to a group of language teachers in Wemindji, Que., on Sept. 18. (Grand Council of the Cree, Eeyou Istchee)

Pash also says the ability of young Cree to speak their language "has changed drastically" over the last decade. 

"When I first started teaching, there were no children who spoke English coming into school," said Pash. Now she says large numbers of children arrive at school with English as their first language. 

'We are building the Cree Nation'

The Cree Language Act of Eeyou Istchee also calls for local governments, regional entities, businesses and other institutions to adopt and submit a Cree language plan, outlining how each will promote and improve the use of Cree within their organizations. 

There is, however, nothing in the act that obliges compliance or action, as there is in Bill 101, Quebec's law to protect and strengthen the French language. Bill 101 has requirements on languages spoken at businesses, signs, and on French language education.

The act, and the Cree language commission it calls for, are 'key to everything we want to do with language,' says Sarah Pash, chair of the Cree School Board. (CBC North)

Bosum says the Cree Language Act of Eeyou Istchee is deliberately steering clear of those kinds of measures — for now. 

"We are building the Cree Nation. We need to provide some time for people to get used to the idea of communicating in the Cree language in the workplace," said Bosum. He said that his government would like to see the Cree Nation move in the same direction as Quebec in the future. 

The language commission will also have the mandate to create awareness, technological tools, as well as video and audio records of the fluent Cree speakers to encourage young families to speak Cree at home. 

"The language belongs to the families and it begins in the families and homes," said Bosum.