'A huge class': McGill graduates 40 students from Indigenous language and literacy program

The certificate is one of several programs offered in Cree, Inuktitut, Mi'kmaq, Naskapi and Mohawk through the Office of First Nations and Inuit Education at McGill University.

Certificate is one of several programs offered in Cree, Inuktitut, Mi'kmaq, Naskapi and Mohawk

While the usual number of graduates from McGill's Indigenous Language and Literacy Education program is 20 to 30 students, this year's cohort is 40. Educators say its a sign there's a significant interest in Indigenous languages. (Susan Bell/CBC)

Mabel Sam was feeling a little overwhelmed Monday in her graduation cap, gown and scarf. The Chisasibi grandmother was part of a McGill University convocation ceremony at Place des Arts in Montreal. 

"I'm overwhelmed and I'm very happy," said Sam, who was receiving a certificate in Indigenous language and literacy education.

It's a 30-credit program offered in the Cree communities over three years through a partnership between the Cree School Board and McGill University department of education.

Sam enrolled so she could better help her grandchildren in their studies.

"So I can teach them Cree and help with their homework," she said. 

The certificate is one of several programs offered in Cree, Inuktitut, Mi'kmaq, Naskapi and Mohawk through the office of First Nations and Inuit education at McGill. It is offered to people who want to improve their language skills for a variety of reasons.

"This program is important in the territory," said Mary Bear, co-ordinator of the courses offered in the Cree language. "Even though many of us speak Cree we are really losing it fast. A lot of young people don't speak it."

Graduate Mabel Sam, front, enjoys the day with two other graduates. (Susan Bell/CBC)

Mabel Sam was one of more than 40 Cree graduates in the program this year and the number of people in the program is a sign of an increased interest in Indigenous languages, explained  Jim Howden, the director of the First Nations and Inuit education office at McGill. 

"There are 40 graduates. That's a huge class," said Howden, who says a usual cohort is between 20 to 30 students.

"There is a real recognition of, 'Yes I want to perfect, I want to work on and I want to go further with my Cree language.'"

What makes the programs unique, according to Howden, is that they are offered in communities and in close co-operation with Indigenous communities.

Rhonda Oblin-Cooper is another student who graduated Monday. The office worker and mother from Waswanipi, Que., enrolled to strengthen her Cree language skills after living several years away from her community. 

"I realized it's quite easy to lose [my Cree]," said Oblin-Cooper, who says she now gives office presentations in Cree and speaks more Cree with her family.

"I think you appreciate it more when you leave and you lose some of it. You see how easily it is lost."

Despite its growing popularity, language co-ordinator Mary Bear says there aren't plans at the moment to start another cohort in literacy program opened to the wider community.

There are two other programs offered in Cree through McGill, including a 60-credit certificate of education for First Nations and Inuit, which is specifically geared to help train teachers in the Cree School Board, something that is sorely needed at the moment.

Oblin-Cooper says she really hopes the Cree School Board continues to offer the certificate program open to the community in the future.

"It's going to take the whole community to maintain this language," said Oblin-Cooper.  "It's going to take everybody speaking it and everybody strengthening their skills."