Keeping the language of Attawapiskat alive

It has survived centuries of colonization, a direct attack from residential schools, but now the Cree language on Ontario's James Bay Coast is in danger. And some blame TV and video games.

First Nations across Ontario's far north are worried about young people losing their language

Christine Koostachin is teaching things at the Attawapiskat school that she never thought she'd have to.

She finds that kids in the Ontario James Bay community don't get out on the land any more and hardly speak their own language at all.

"When I talk to them in Cree, they understand what I'm saying, they just can't answer me back in their, our own language," she says.

"Those kids I taught 20 years ago are becoming young parents now and they're talking to their children in English."

So Koostachin takes her Cree classes out on field trips to the bush, to learn about traditions like hunting and trapping that are so closely tied to the language.

Carleton University linguist and Indigenous language expert Marie-Odile Junker says Cree is rooted in traditional practices, where English is the language of video games, social media, cellphones and the daily life of a young person in Attawapiskat.

"The reality that you encounter doesn't lend itself to be described necessarily in your Indigenous language. You have to make an effort," she says. 

A bulletin board in the Attawapiskat school shows the seasons and days of the week in Cree. (Erik White/CBC )

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation is also noticing fewer and fewer young people speaking Cree in communities across northern Ontario and is drawing up a plan to preserve the language. 

"We're extremely worried that one day the language will just die," says Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox.

"It won't be in my lifetime, I'll be long gone, but that doesn't mean I don't have a duty to ensure that doesn't happen."

Junker applauds the effort, especially since so much of the focus and energy right now is on reviving Indigenous languages that have all but disappeared thanks to assimilation and residential schools.

"It's much more glorious to revitalize a dead thing than to keep alive and support something that's still there," she says.


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to