La Loche, Sask., residents fear loss of Dene language and culture

Residents of La Loche, Sask., are proud of their Dene language and traditions, but feel it could be lost if something isn't done soon.

Residents still coping with school shooting say Dene culture is fading quicker than ever

Jakwan Montgrand, 8, caught this fish on Lac la Loche in northern Saskatchewan. (Matt Kruchak/CBC)

Donovan Fontaine and his young son peered into the hole in the ice as he fed the fishing line into the cold, dark water below. The pair exchanged warm smiles as the sun shone on the snow-covered lake.

The wind was light that unseasonably balmy day at the end of February in northern Saskatchewan — the perfect day for a father and son to spend fishing together on Lac La Loche. Nearby, other fathers and their children huddled over holes in the ice and spoke Dene.

It's a scene that has played out for generations. From this fishing spot, the village of La Loche looked like Lego blocks on the horizon, bookended by the northern boreal forest. 

Donovan Fontaine and his son, Cage, fish on Lac la Loche. (Matt Kruchak/CBC)

Fishing, hunting and spending time outdoors is important to the Dene community, about 605 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. So is their language.

Many residents, however, feel their traditional ways are fading quicker than ever with the influence of technology on the village and its young people, who have had plenty of struggles to contend with already — from social issues to a lack of resources to coming to grips with a fatal school shooting earlier this year that made international headlines.

Fontaine was out on the ice hoping to catch a couple of fish with his son, though his purpose was deeper. The bond between father and son on that ice-covered lake skipped a generation. 

"I had a father, but he never was around," the 31-year-old said.

Donovan Fontaine ice fishing on Lac la Loche

8 years ago
Duration 0:57
La Loche resident Donovan Fontaine explains his ice-fishing technique on Lac la Loche in Northern Saskatchewan.

Fontaine never learned to fish or hunt. He's now instructing himself so he can teach his kids what his father failed to show him, and to lead them down a positive path. Fontaine travelled a rough road, one that included drugs, drinking, and gangs. Then he spent half his life behind bars.

However, things are different for Fontaine now that he's been out of jail for five years and has a family. He knows one thing. 

"I will never leave my kids." 

Language gives sense of pride

Dene words left the lips of Wilinda Sylvester and were broadcast to radio listeners around the village of slightly more than 2,600 people. On air, the radio host on CHPN 89.9 FM, the "Dene voice of La Loche," moves with ease between English and her first language.

"I'm proud that I was taught the Dene language," said Sylvester, as she sat in the radio station's studio on the second floor of the town's arena.

Wilinda Sylvester is a radio host on CHPN 89.9 FM, the "Dene voice of La Loche." (Matt Kruchak/CBC)

While First Nations languages have been lost in communities across Canada, the Dene language, also known as Denesuliné, remains strong in the community because of its remoteness and isolation. It wasn't until 1962-63 that a road south was built, and TV didn't arrive in the community until 1976. 

Another reason you'll hear people in La Loche speak Dene at the grocery store, gas station or to each other on the street is the radio station's presence and role in the village, Sylvester said. 

"The station is a big priority to the community," she said. "It's the middle of it." 

When someone in La Loche dies or if there's a tragic event like a house fire, the radio station runs auctions to raise money for the impacted families. Every day, between 400 and 500 people follow along on the radio and play bingo, she said. When the village was evacuated last year during forest fire season, the station stayed open. 

Radio host Wilinda Sylvester speaks Dene on air to listeners in La Loche

8 years ago
Duration 0:32
Wilinda Sylvester is a radio host on CHPN 89.9 FM, the "Dene voice of La Loche."

Kayla Ponicappo is a high school student who works at the station and has grown up speaking the language. 

"It's really important. We speak Dene at home all day, and everywhere we go in town we just speak it; even on the radio everyday," the 16-year-old said. 

"I don't want to lose that culture ever." 

Kayla Ponicappo (right) and Jazz Moise are high school student who work at La Loche's Dene language radio station. (Matt Kruchak/CBC)

Like Sylvester and Ponicappo, Ida Lemaigre says speaking the language makes her happy. 

"Our Denesuliné language gives us pride and identity and a place of belonging," the Dene teacher at La Loche Community School said. 

The language is complex, with 35 consonants and 11 vowels. Next to Cree, Dene is the second most spoken aboriginal language in Saskatchewan. 

La Loche teacher Ida Lemaigre speaks Dene

8 years ago
Duration 0:56
La Loche Community School teacher Ida Lemaigre speaks Dene. She has run the school's Dene language program for the past five years.

However, there's something that Lemaigre is seeing — or rather, hearing —that's alarming. She's noticed over the past year or so that students coming from the village's elementary school are speaking more English than Dene. 

"It saddens me when students I talk to in the Denesuliné language look at me and say, 'I don't understand you,'" she said. 

There are statistics to back up Lemaigre's anecdotal evidence, and it doesn't look promising for the long-term future of Dene in La Loche. 

Randy Herman teaches Dene at Ducharme Elementary School in La Loche, Sask. (CBC)
When Randy Herman began teaching Dene at Ducharme Elementary School four years ago, he conducted a survey of the 444 students. Of those, 51 per cent spoke Dene, and he said the number continues to drop every year.

Four years ago, 96 per cent of the Grade 5 students spoke Dene. Just three years later, 26 per cent of Grade 5 students spoke the language. 

"If the trend continues we are absolutely going to lose our language down the road, and it won't take very long," he said. 

"If you don't have your language, who are you? How can you say you're Dene if you don't speak the Dene language? How can you say you're French if you don't speak the French language? That's a big, big part of who we are." 

An outdoor culture

Herman stood in the dimly lit log cabin and pointed out the beaver, lynx and fox pelts hanging on the walls. A table sat at the centre of the one-room building lit by a lantern. 

The cabin, however, wasn't in the wilderness that surrounds the community. It's a replica of a traditional home. 

"People used to live like this out in the bush," he said. "Built their own stuff. Enjoyed their life with their families. Like I said, just lived out there — surviving. A good, healthy life." 

The log cabin was built inside the local high school to teach students about the past when the community relied on hunting, trapping and fishing as a way of making a living. 

Dene teacher Randy Herman stands inside a replica of a traditional cabin which was built inside La Loche Community School. The entrance to the replica cabin is in the library. (CBC)

The Dene, or Denesuliné, people travelled through the La Loche area for generations, and archeological evidence traces them back thousands of years in northern Saskatchewan. 

In 1778, fur trader Peter Pond was shown the long-established Portage La Loche, a 20-km route, linking the Churchill and Athabasca River drainage systems. The North West Company set up a fur trading post at the portage in the early 1800s, and the Hudson's Bay Company followed. 

By the mid-1800s, a community began on the west side of Lac la Loche and in 1895 a mission was set up at the current site of La Loche. 

The sun sets on Lac la Loche in Northern Saskatchewan. (Matt Kruchak/CBC)

Since the demise of the fur trade and the transition from the traditional way of living to wage labour, many in La Loche have struggled with social issues — from poverty, addiction and the high number of suicides to unemployment. 

The unemployment rate in the community was estimated at 22.3 per cent, according to Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey. In comparison, Saskatchewan's unemployment rate in July 2015 was 5.2 per cent. 

According to a 2010 report from the Keewatin Yatthe Regional Health Authority, which includes La Loche and surrounding area, the five-year average for suicides was 61.1 per 100,000 people. The report states that for the same period the average for Saskatchewan was 12 per 100,000. In 2013, the health region's population was around 12,200.

Life in the La Loche area has changed drastically over the past three decades. 

Sylvester's mother grew up in a cabin in the bush that was much like the school's replica. Her grandfather was a trapper. Sylvester was raised in the village but remained connected to the land through school. There were yearly fishing, trapping and canoe trips with elders. 

"That was really important to me because I enjoyed that. I really did," she said. 

"That's a lost tradition right there." 

Regan Herman enjoys a sunny day fishing on Lac la Loche in northern Saskatchewan. (Matt Kruchak/CBC)

Now, her three school-aged children don't have the same outdoor opportunities. They haven't gone north with school, she said. 

"I think that we should be putting that back," she said. "Culture, it should be put back." 

Whereas radio connects and reflects the community, many residents believe that contemporary technologies, like the internet, smartphones and video games, are creating the disconnect between the young in La Loche and the community's traditions. 

"Technology came and that's when we lost pretty much our youth," Sylvester said. 

Herman, who grew up connected to the land, said he accepts the changes of the modern world, but believes something must be done to carry on the traditional ways. 

"I understand we're living in a different world now, I know that, but we can't forget [our traditions] either, and if we do — then who are we?"

He encourages young people to pursue their dreams. It's OK to leave La Loche to get an education, but the village needs doctors, nurses, mechanics and plumbers, too, he said. 

"I always tell them this is who we are," he said. "We are who we are. We're the Dene people. We live in the North. We didn't come from Calgary or Toronto. We were meant to be here and if you want to pursue something — great, we encourage you to do that. That's part of the school system; but don't forget who you are, and when you come home, be proud of being Dene." 

Families are future

Back on the ice, Fontaine said he was happy that he had kids. They saved his life. 

"Family is really important I have to say. There's lots of support and love through family," he said. 

Donovan Fontaine fishes as his son, Cage, patiently waits. (Matt Kruchak/CBC)

For Lemaigre, she believes that it's up to young families like Fontaine's to save the Dene language and culture that the community loves so much. 

"Culture and language are together, you cannot break one from the other, you know; it's inseparable," she said. "If you're going to do language, you've got to do culture as well — they go hand in hand. So all these things have to happen at the foundation, which is at home."