Cree classes seek new generations of speakers

Even though Cree is the most spoken among Canada's Aboriginal languages, it remains in danger of dying out. Lac La Ronge First Nation is one place that is trying to save an important part of its heritage.

Even though Cree is the most spoken among Canada's Aboriginal languages, it remains in danger of dying out. Lac La Ronge First Nation is one place that is trying to save an important part of its heritage.


        Minnie McKenzie champions Cree language     

Aboriginal languages across Canada have been steadily declining. Only three Aboriginal languages are used enough to be considered safe from extinction. According to Statistics Canada about 80,000 people speak Cree, but even those numbers don't protect the language from eventually dying out.

In repsonse to this, several programs have been developed to save the language through education. Elementary school children learn Cree language and culture on the Lac La Ronge First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan. Kids in this class usually speak Englsh. In fact, fewer young people are speaking Cree because it isn't practised at home.

It's a trend that's familiar to Rema and Hillary Cook. Cree is their first language, but their children only speak English. Rema blames herself for not speaking Cree to her family.

"Some of the people that we know, too, that don't speak Cree, so we have to speak English, and we get so used to doing that...we tend to do that at the house too," she says.

"You get so accustomed to it today, that it doesn't ring in until you've actually had a chance to sit down, or you're lying on the bed, you wonder...where's our language going? Some of these kids need to start speaking our language," says Hillary.

The theory is younger speakers means a healthier language. If young people start speaking Cree it could still survive.


        Young people are key to the survival of the language     

The 2001 census found that 24 per cent of people who identify themselves as Aboriginal can carry a conversation in an Aboriginal language. That's down from 29% in 1996. The number of people with knowledge of Cree dropped by 3.1 per cent, from 95,555 in 1996 to 92,630 in 2001. The number of people who spoke Cree as their first language dropped by 6.2 per cent, from 82,420 in 1996 to 77,285 in 2001. Of those who speak Cree, 74.7 per cent speak it regularly at home.

Most of the Cree spoken in Saskatchewan is spoken in the north. Isolation has made the language more prevalent, but location can't protect the language forever.

In La Ronge, Cree signs have been put up on some businesses and last year a Cree court was established and Cree festivals are held to promote the language and culture. The federal government is also pouring millions of dollars into language retention programs. In December Heritage Minister Sheila Copps announced a $172 million package for the promotion of Aborginal languages.

That funding is important for people like Minnie McKenzie who a passion for reviving Cree language. As a member of the Northern Cree Language Retention Committee, she develops resource materials for schools and helps to organize language festivals. Full Cree immersion in school is her next goal. That will require additional resources.


        These kids enjoy learning Cree in class     

"We need more curriculum development, we need more training for teachers on how to teach the language and we need more teaching methodologies and teaching strategies."

Teachers are encouraged to speak Cree as much as possible in class. But McKenzie says the school alone can't revive the language.

"Cree classes are not enough to bring back the language, we need support from the home, we need parents and we need grandparents to talk to their grandchildren and their children in Cree on a daily basis," McKenzie says

Tom Roberts is a Cree broadcaster for CBC Radio. He says people want to hear their issues discussed in their own language and hearing Cree on the radio is vital to keeping the language alive. Roberts also has a passion for keeping his language alive.

"I wish that would transfer into their homes as well after school because a lot of the kids will take it for an hour or so in class and when they're done, it's pretty well done." says Roberts. "When they get home it's all English again. The parents should have a role as well in talking to their kids in Cree and try to keep them active in learning the Cree language."


        Tom Roberts tries to promote the language on his radio program     

The Cook's realize that now. They're concerned that, without the language, their children won't understand their culture. Stories used to teach Cree values and history and these things may lose their meaning in English.

"When we were smaller Grandma told us stories...and now us, we're trying to tell it to them in English, because we didn't teach them Cree, so it makes it a little bit different, the stories, it's...I wish I could tell them in Cree," says Rema Cook

"I feel for my children. I wish they could speak Cree, and our little one is trying to kind of pick up on things, she asks me questions about my granddaughter I ask her, or I talk to her in Cree and she says, what does that mean dad, which is good, and I think she wants to learn the language, and for me that's a plus," says Hillary.

While the Cooks may feel they've let down their children by not passing on the language, they haven't lost hope. They plan to do better the next time around by speaking Cree to their grandchildren.

Reporter: Michelle Hugli