'It's a part of our identity': Indigenous language instructors learn alongside students at Sturgeon Lake

Indigenous language revitalization is essential, but it must be integrated with a sense of the land, spirituality and other elements of culture, say instructors.

Language and culture must be studied together to know what it means to be Cree, say teachers

Andrea Custer and teaches Cree words and concepts to students at Sturgeon Lake Central School. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Sonya Ermine wanted to be in on the joke.

The Sturgeon Lake Central School teacher began learning Cree several years ago for many reasons, but humour was the catalyst.

"When I hear other people talking in the Cree language and they're laughing and laughing, I wonder what they're saying, but it must be funny. I love that sense of humour," Ermine said recently before heading back into her Grade 1 classroom.

Ermine's father, a residential school survivor, managed to maintain his fluency in Cree. But she was raised by her non-Cree mother, so she didn't learn the language. After working in several cities across the Prairies, Ermine got her education degree from the University of Saskatchewan. She moved back to teach at Sturgeon Lake, located approximately 170 kilometres north of Saskatoon.

I wonder what they're saying . . . it must be funny.- Sonya Ermine

The move home was a way to connect with her community, but also to immerse herself in the language. Ermine teaches the Grade 1 children, but also learns from them.

"It's nice and slow. I'm learning with my students. I feel that if they're able to learn it, I'm able to learn it."

On a recent afternoon, the students were giggling and playing with blocks on a large carpet.

"Okay, clean up time. Kanitaschikik. Clean up," Ermine tells them.

Once the blocks are packed away, the youngsters sit at their circular table. Ermine cautions her students against walking on the community's partially-frozen lake, letting them ask and answer most of the questions themselves.

"I really need you to be safe," she said.

"Don't go on the ice. Have a safe weekend. Listen to Mom. Listen to Dad. Listen to moshum [grandfather] and kokum [grandmother]."

For Ermine and others, understanding the Cree vocabulary is important, but it's only one piece of the puzzle. Language must be integrated with a sense of the land, even something as simple as a lesson on lake ice.

"You feel a connection with your people but also with the land," Ermine said.

"It's a part of our identity."

Sonya Ermine moved back to the Sturgeon Lake First Nation in part to learn Cree. She now teaches at the local school. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Lobbying for language support

In the 2016 Census, 69,975 people identified Cree as their mother tongue. It's the most common Indigenous language spoken in Canada. In northern areas, Inuktitut (36,185) and Dene (11,325) are also relatively prominent.

Other Indigenous languages have much smaller numbers. On the Prairies, just 1,320 people whose mother tongue is Dakota remain. In Eastern Canada, there are only 1,295 people whose mother tongue is Mohawk. The numbers are even lower for the Mé​tis language of Michif, at 750, or the Haida language, at 135. In each of these cases, fewer than half use it as their main household language.

Some languages are more endangered than others, but Indigenous leaders say increased supports are urgently needed for all of them. They're encouraged by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise to work with them on a national law to protect Indigenous languages.

In June 2017, the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, along with federal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, announced the co-development of an Indigenous languages act. The act is expected to be legislated in the fall of 2018.

"Language is culture and central to our songs, stories, and ceremonies. The recognition, promotion, and recovery of First Nations languages – the original languages of these lands – will not only strengthen our Nations but enrich the whole country," Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde said in a statement at last year's announcement.

Sonya Ermine talk to her Grade 1 class at Sturgeon Lake Central School. She returned to her home community several years ago because she wanted to learn more about Cree language and culture. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Call to Action #14

The creation of an Indigenous languages act was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Call to Action #14. The call notes the "urgency" of the matter. It also states that simply creating a law isn't enough.

"The federal government has a responsibility to provide sufficient funds for Aboriginal language revitalization and preservation," states the document.

In the 2017 budget, the federal government committed to $89.9M over three years to support Indigenous languages and culture. Of this, $69 million is earmarked for the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, which in turn funds the development of language learning materials, language classes and culture camps and archiving Indigenous languages.

But while it is a significant increase in federal funding for the initiative (prior to the 2017 budget, it was consistently frozen at $5 million a year), the program is project-based, meaning applicants must apply for fund money on a project-by-project basis. Furthermore, a 2015 Canadian Heritage evaluation report revealed that historically, much of the funding goes unused year after year due to an overly complicated application process and bureaucratic red tape. 

Trudeau also promised to close the funding gap between on-reserve schools and those in cities and towns. But much of that $2.6 billion committed over five years extends past the next election. Some communities also report they haven't yet received any of the money, and they still receive thousands per student less than other schools.

Andrea Custer is one of the teachers working to create a Cree immersion program at Sturgeon Lake Central School. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Language integral to culture 

Back at Sturgeon Lake, Ermine is far from alone in her desire to preserve their language. Fellow teacher Andrea Custer and others are promoting the concept of "land-based" education. Language, land, spirituality and culture are all connected. They must be studied and practised together to know what it means to be Cree or "Nehiyaw," Custer said.

"Children need to know who they are so they can be proud, to have integrity, to be resilient," Custer said.

"Reconciliation for me would be to get the financial resources I need to do my job effectively."

It's the first year at the school for Custer, a member of northern Saskatchewan's Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation. She's teaching new words to the children, but also showing them how to shake the hands of elders. It's all part of a deliberate "scaffolding" process, adding new challenges gradually.

Indigenous language instructors learn alongside students at Sturgeon Lake

5 years ago
Duration 0:53
Students are learning Cree words and concepts to students at Sturgeon Lake Central School in Saskatchewan.

Custer and others teach some classes in Cree, but the vast majority of instruction is English. The hope is that Sturgeon Lake will get funding to become a full Cree immersion school. She wants to develop an entire curriculum based on Cree language outdoor education. That will have a ripple effect outside the school.

"One or two language teachers are not going to be able to do it themselves. It's the whole community. Baby steps," she said.

Down the hall from Custer, the still giggling Grade 1 children file out of Ermine's classroom. Ermine says she dreams of the day the whole community can speak Cree, connect with the land and embrace all elements of their culture.

"I feel that because it's been taken, it's important to have it put back in, so that our people can feel a sense of belonging again," Ermine said.

"It's who we are."

This story is part of our project Beyond 94: Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Read more stories in the series and look for further coverage this week.