Cree nation takes action to save language that was 'on back burner' for 20 years

The children of a northern Cree community are at risk of losing their Cree language.

Chief Louisa Wynne's community used to be where the language thrived, but something is changing she says

Chief Louisa Wynne says youth in her community of Whapmagoostui are losing their connection to the Cree language. (Susan Bell/CBC)

It's a warning bell that Louisa Wynne is not willing to ignore — the children of her Cree community of Whapmagoostui can be heard speaking English more often.

Wynne is the chief of the most northern Quebec Cree community, located on the shore of Hudson Bay and accessible only by air. Its isolation has long made it a place where the language has thrived, but Wynne is worried that something is changing.

''It been said because [we are] the most northern community our language is very strong and vibrant,'' said Wynne.

''The past several years I've noticed the young ones speaking English more and more. It concerns me very much.''

That concern has brought Wynne and more than 100 other people, many with experience in language development and preservation, together in Oujé-Bougoumou, Que., until March 15 for the Eeyou Istchee Language Engagement Session.

It's an attempt to renew efforts to strengthen and protect the Cree language.

''If that next generation doesn't speak it then there is the threat of losing the Cree language all together,'' said Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum, who gave the opening address at the conference.

''I think the message is not loud enough to let [parents] know about the threat that we could be losing our language.''

'Not using these resources that we have'

The last Cree language summit was held in 1997 and the last Cree language survey was in 1989. There are no recent statistics to show what is happening, but Wynne said it's a concern in many other communities.

''The Cree language has been on the back burner for the last 20 years,'' said Wynne.

"Young parents seem to have a preference to speak to their young ones in English.''

More than 100 people gathered to discuss Cree language development and preservation in Oujé-Bougoumou, Que., at the Eeyou Istchee Language Engagement Session which runs until March 15. (Susan Bell/CBC)

Several ideas are being discussed by delegates such as initiating a regular language survey, enshrining language rights into the Cree constitution and hiring local language coordinators in each community — something Wynne supports.

Her community of Whapmagoostui is also looking at land-based programs to teach the youth about Cree culture and language.

"The essence of the Cree language is out on the land. The Cree in the community is very different from the Cree out on the land,'' said Wynne.

This sentiment was echoed by many of the delegates, including the Grand Chief Abel Bosum, who encouraged the local entities, such as the Cree School Board and Cree Board of Health and Social Services, to hire hunters and trappers as language consultants.

''We have our hunters and trappers who are out there, who live on the land, whose Cree language is very strong and we are ignoring them,'' said Bosum.

''We are not using these resources that we have. We need to have a new way of thinking so that they are part of what we are doing.''

Bosum plans to bring back the recommendations and priorities out of this conference back to the council board of the Cree Nation Government.

He said he hopes more local chiefs like Wynne will engage with these efforts.