These Michif speakers have been fighting their whole lives to save a dying language

There’s a lot that Jeanne Pelletier remembers.

Following her parents around in their close-knit Michif community near Marieval, Sask., in the early 1940s, she learned not only to walk but to talk.

Pelletier can still recall sitting in the local schoolhouse as her mother and aunts knitted and sewed — and with her father and uncles, who were playing cards.

“That’s where I learned the language really well,” reflects the now 80-year-old Pelletier. “Children were not supposed to talk. You can just listen. So most of the time, that’s what I did.”

There are conflicting views on how many people in Canada still speak the Michif language, which is a mix of Cree and French. Between 650 and 1,170 people know some form of the language, with far fewer likely to be fluent. A new program by the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan that includes elders, like Pelletier, aims to teach school children across Saskatchewan the Michif language and culture to ensure it isn’t lost — but shared with future generations to come.

Of all the things Pelletier says she learned during those seemingly simple times, the most important was who she is.

Click to play video 'Growing up Michif in Saskatchewan' Growing up Michif in Saskatchewan

Growing up Michif in Saskatchewan

Pelletier has been spending her later years striving to foster the sense of community she knew as a young girl.

In the 1970s, while settling into life in Regina, she realized how unique her upbringing was.

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All around her, the colonial disruptions and legacies of assimilation were too close for comfort as she struggled to find others like her.

“When I made up my mind to search for my culture and do something about it, I did,” says Pelletier, who, at 30, joined a Métis elders’ club.

It was a safe place where she says the culture and language she had been missing were celebrated.

It was also the formal beginning of the legacy she would go on to establish in the dance community, where she became a respected leader in traditions of jigging and other step dances.

While at home she was grateful to have family, they had all come to operate in a heavily anglicized world.
While at home she was grateful to have family, they had all come to operate in a heavily anglicized world.

Having no one to talk to regularly in the Michif language herself, she says she struggled to impart it to her children and eventually gave it up.

But through her job as an instructional assistant at Sacred Heart Community School, she found herself able to cultivate opportunities, however informal at times, to share Michif culture.

And later on, she found a voice in the Gabriel Dumont Institute, a not-for-profit organization established in the 1980s to serve the needs of the Métis and non-status communities in the province.

While she, herself, never completed the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teachers Education Program (SUNTEP) offered through the institute in conjunction with the universities of Regina and Saskatchewan (in Saskatoon), she takes great pride in pushing to include Michif culture — and language.

“I lobbied like hell and you should have heard me,” Pelletier recalls. “They even asked me, ‘Why do you want this so bad?’ I told them, ‘I have a bunch of kids. They have to continue their education.’”

One of those kids is Jeannine Whitehouse — and she’s following in her mother’s footsteps. Whitehouse went through SUNTEP and now works for Regina Catholic Schools as the First Nation, Métis and Inuit education co-ordinator. Bringing her family’s story somewhat full circle, she is leading the board’s implementation of the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan’s Michif Early Education Program at Sacred Heart Community School.

Click to play video 'Reviving Michif language and culture through education' Reviving Michif language and culture through education

Reviving Michif language and culture through education

 

The Michif Early Education Program is a pilot project also being offered by the Regina Public school board at McDermid Community School, at St. Michael’s and Westmount community schools in Saskatoon and at Rossignol Elementary School in Île-à-la-Crosse.

It targets pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, engaging them with both culture and language through play-based learning. Over the next two years, the Métis Nation hopes to expose up to 200 children to the traditions of the Michif people.

But what that will look like will be a little different in each school, says the Métis Nation’s Lisa Flemming, director of early childhood education, as there are subtle and nuanced differences even within the Michif nation.

Norman Fleury became part of the Michif people’s rich history through his grandparents.

He grew up under their guidance in St. Lazare, Man., learning about traditions of buffalo hunting and berry picking and why being connected to the land is so important to the Michif identity.

“When I was a child, we never asked who we were. We knew who we were,” Fleury says. “We were not European. We were not First Nations. We were Michif.”

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Click to play video 'Where does the Michif language come from?' Where does the Michif language come from?

Where does the Michif language come from?

 

Like Pelletier and Whitehouse in their ways, Fleury has worked tirelessly to uphold Michif traditions and the work of his ancestors.

In Manitoba, he shared his knowledge in many ways, including through the Louis Riel Institute, before moving to Saskatoon to work with the Gabriel Dumont Institute.

“There are many stories here in Canada, especially in Saskatchewan, which is one of the strongest communities that are still hanging on,” he says.

A linguist and a translator, Norman is the author of the 11,500-word Michif dictionary that has become a leading resource in his still-evolving field. Now at the University of Saskatchewan, he is a Michif elder, delivering lectures through the faculty of education while working to standardize the language and record it in international phonics.

Bruce Flamont, a longtime Michif advocate in his own right, says working within the colonial confines of an anglicized system has been at the core of his struggle.

Click to play video 'A Michif name for a Michif person' A Michif name for a Michif person

A Michif name for a Michif person

 

His passion for his people drove him to help establish the Gabriel Dumont Institute to enable the cultural and linguistic work of others, including Pelletier and Fleury.

But Flamont says not all of the work he’s undertaken toward preservation and promotion over the years has yielded positive results — at least not yet. Having sat on many committees and taskforces without seeing subsequent programming produce fluent Michif speakers has been frustrating, he says. The impact of systemic and institutionalized racism has hindered the idealism of various revitalization efforts over the years, he adds, citing the pan-Indigenizing of past efforts as problematic.

Fifteen years ago, he was part of a task force of the Aboriginal Languages Initiative (the predecessor to the federal government’s current Indigenous Languages and Cultures Program). Around the table were various distinct groups, he says, and rightfully so, they were there fighting their own battles against the impact of colonization on their peoples.

“Michif people are a genuine nation,” he says. “We have our own language. We have our own culture. We have our own collective history. We have a collective consciousness.”

Click to play video 'The future of Michif' The future of Michif

The future of Michif

 

Like Pelletier, Fleury and Flamont are onboard with the Michif Early Education Program. They will be sharing their knowledge of the culture and language and associated histories in the participating Saskatoon schools.

While all three have walked very different paths, they have long shared a common goal and recognize not just the importance — but the necessity — of working toward a cultural renaissance with younger generations.

“What is the future? What does the future hold?” Fleury says. “They’re the future.”

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A key part of the Michif Early Education Program, which he, too, is participating in, will be imparting the knowledge that he has carried with him into the hearts and minds of the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students open to receiving it.

Instilling Michif world views through traditions of storytelling and land-based education is just as valuable as classroom learning when it comes to capturing the nuances of the nation, according to Fleury.

“You cannot make people become part of a process,” he says of what he’s learned from his preservation efforts over the decades. “If it’s not in your heart and your mind, you’re not going to be involved.”

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