Language and culture were taken away from many Indigenous people in Canada through residential schools and assimilation.
Samson LaMontagne is intent on bringing that language and culture back. LaMontagne teaches kids Michif at Father Vachon School in Saskatoon. Michif is a Métis language spoken in parts of Canada and the U.S., and combines Cree, French and other languages.
LaMontagne isn’t just keeping his teachings in the classroom, he’s also trying to reach people at a place where many spend a lot of time: Instagram.
He said he was initially creating content for teachers and students, but parents also started to reach out. He decided to make use of the platform as it’s particularly accessible.
I believe that every student I have that speaks Michif is breathing life back into the language and keeping it alive.– Samson LaMontagne
LaMontagne also said it’s important for Indigenous people to contribute to the preservation of their language and culture.
“If you want things done in the right way, and if you want true reconciliation, you need the Indigenous community,” he said. “To be in charge of it, to be in charge of the delivery of it.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Actions include a call for a Languages Act that incorporates the principle that the preservation, revitalization and strengthening of Aboriginal languages and cultures are best managed by Aboriginal people and communities.
Language and tech
Abby Janvier-Novak and Gwen Cubbon are also part of a project using technology to help people connect, or reconnect, to Indigenous languages.
They’re part of a team developing language revitalization apps that categorize basic Cree and Dene words into themes, such as animals or body parts.
Cubbon, a member of Canoe Lake Cree First Nation who was the Cree language revitalization consultant on the project, said the apps are also helping to preserve sounds, which are especially important in Indigenous languages and often the most difficult part to learn.
The apps are also geared toward specific communities. Apps have already been created for several communities and more are in the works.
“I think having a language app is a contemporary way to preserve language and to have it accessible to the younger generations,” says Janvier-Novak, a member of the Clearwater River Dene Nation, who was the Dene language revitalization consultant.
The phone apps — currently available in the Apple app store — are an initiative by the Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC) First Nations, which governs nine First Nations, aimed at sparking interest in language-learning.
Language and music
Dale McArthur is familiar with the importance of sound and language.
McArthur is a Regina-based blues-rock singer-songwriter who is preserving Nakota language through his music. Under the stage name Dale Mac, he is working on an album that incorporates Nakota words and references to cultural ceremony.
“The research and planning that went into this album involved a lot of elder consultations, elder guidance, going to ceremony, researching grant opportunities for language preservation, cultural preservation as well,” McArthur says, “Also getting involved with my home community of White Bear First Nation myself.”
He said it’s important for Indigenous youth to have access to language and culture.
“It was a bit of both — a passion project and about preserving the language — so that when it’s my turn to pass it on, I would have that language ingrained in my DNA,” he says.
McArthur hopes his album will be released in a month or so.
Language and education
The miyo mâchihowin program at E.D. Feehan Catholic High School in Saskatoon has been around since 2018, but has grown and evolved since then.
At first it was only offered to Grade 9 students, but is now offered from grades 9 through 12. It’s also now incorporating more language components.
Some of the program goals include addressing health issues, improving confidence and shaping identity. Classes involve Indigenous content, such as land-based learning for physical education.
“This program creates space for Indigenous youth to connect with who they are, and perhaps move forward on a healing journey that probably finds itself beginning with residential schools and the assimilation processes that took place throughout the history of Canada,” said teacher Falynn Baptiste.
She said she’s seen how students are able to heal and develop a sense of pride in their Indigenous identity.
It’s having an impact on students, according to Grade 12 Lars Thiemann.
“It’s affected me a lot. I really got to understand my language and my culture,” he says.
“Right now we’re doing Cree class, I really never understood Cree. But I came a long way and I can finally say I can understand parts of it.… but not all of it yet.”
This story is part of the CBC Saskatchewan series Called to Action: Stories of Reconciliation. Over the coming months, we will explore themes ranging from language to sports, putting the spotlight on local efforts and the people leading them.