GDI turns to Elders to help preserve Michif.
Incorporated as a non-profit corporation in 1980, GDI is the educational arm of the Metis Nation-Saskatchewan, and works to meet the educational and cultural needs of Metis and non-status Indians in the province of Saskatchewan. As part of that role, the institute provides post-secondary programs and works to preserve and promote Metis culture and traditions.
Working to preserve and promote Michif languages is an integral part of preserving and promoting Metis culture, explained Darren Prefontaine, a curriculum developer with GDI's publishing department.
"What's unique about Michif, yes it's a complete mix of French and Cree, has some Saulteaux and English, and maybe even some Dene, depending on where you're at. But it's more than just a haphazard mix. It's a perfect balance; it's a perfect system. And it's really a microcosm for who Metis are because it's a mixed language but it's a unique language ... The Metis have taken these heritage languages, Cree and French, and they've made them their own," Prefontaine said.
"Michif encompasses a world view. It's just like Cree or any other Aboriginal language, or any language, whether it's English or French, Russian or Chinese, Mandarin, Cantonese. We all have world views attached to our language," he said. "It's not just a language, it's a world view, and when you lose your language, you really lose your culture, and I think that's an important point to remember ... We have to really work hard to preserve these languages because they're the essence of people's culture."
For it's Michif language programming, GDI focuses on the three Michif languages that have historically been spoken in Saskatchewan--Michif Cree, Isle-a-la-Crosse or Northwestern Saskatchewan Michif, and Michif French.
According to Prefontaine, Michif Cree is the language most people think of when they think of the Michif language-a mix of Cree verbs and French nouns. Isle-a-la-Crosse Michif, he said, is predominately Cree with a few French words, and Michif French is a type of Metis French commonly spoken around the Batoche area of Saskatchewan and in Manitoba.
While the three languages are different in a number of ways-for instance, the Cree component of Isle-a-la-Crosse Michif is based on a Woods Cree Y dialect, while the Cree component of Michif Cree is more of a Plains Cree dialect-they also share many similarities. All three are oral languages, and the world views of the three Metis groups that speak them are pretty much the same, Prefontaine said.
One of the ways GDI works to promote and preserve the Michif languages is through creation of resources, including books, audiovisual products, and its Web site, the Virtual Museum of Metis History and Culture, an online resource chronicling the history and culture of the Metis people.
Reaching out to younger generations is an important part of any efforts to revitalize a language, and it is something GDI has attempted to do through the many children's books it has published.
"Every children's book that we produce, we make sure that we have a Michif language component, usually Michif Cree," Prefontaine said. "It'll be written out in Michif, and then we'll have a narration component with it so the kids can hear what the language sounds like."
Very few GDI staff members can speak Michif, so the institute relies heavily on Michif speakers in the Metis community to help create the various language resources, Prefontaine said. GDI also works alongside these community members, coordinating grassroots efforts to help preserve Michif languages.
"By this I mean working with Michif speakers themselves, organizing Michif speakers forums, working with other Metis institutions such a the Manitoba Metis Federation's Louis Riel Institute; Pemmican Publications, another Metis book publisher; and working with the community people themselves to have these forums and these venues where people can discuss issues on how to preserve the language and how to see that it's going to survive in its transmission between the generations."
There are no hard and fast numbers as to how many Michif speakers there are across the Metis Nation, Prefontaine said, but he estimates there are fewer than 10,000, spread out across Western Canada, Ontario, the Northwest Territories and into Montana and North Dakota.
"So our task is to organize the community, work with Elders, since they're the main language speakers ... to help preserve the language.
Part of the challenge in preserving Michif is taking a traditionally oral language and creating a standardized written version. Two individuals in Manitoba, Norman Fleury and Rita Flamand, are working on that very thing, Prefontaine said, putting together orthographies that will outline the rules for structure, syntax and spellings within the Michif languages.
Another challenge that must be overcome by attempts to preserve and promote Michif, is finding a way to bring the languages into the 21st century without compromising their cultural integrity. How do you come up with an acceptable Michif word for computer? And what about words that have been part of the language traditionally that haven't stood the test of time?
"Some of the older words are really old fashioned," Prefontaine said. "For instance, First Nations might be called Savage, which might not have a very nice connotation to English years, although in the French and Metis context it's not quite s bad. So how do you update words?... How do you keep the essence of the language but also modernize it as well without ensuring a huge add mixture of English, because English is all around us."
Creating language resources and engaging Michif speakers in efforts to preserve the languages are important parts of GDI's work, but the key to promoting use of the language is finding ways to pass on this knowledge to younger generations of Metis people, Prefontaine said.
"So one of the things I think we're going to have to work on with the old people is to find a way to have them instructed in how to teach a language, because you can speak the language, of course, and you know the culture, but to relate that to young people who don't know it is a very difficult task."
Some attempts to build bridges between Michif-speaking Elders and young Metis people are already been made in communities across the Metis Nation, Prefontaine explained. Some involve providing Elders with the training they need to teach Michif, while others involve bringing Elders into the classroom to act as a resource for teachers who are working to teach their students about Metis language, culture and history.
While GDI is working hard to help preserve and promote the Michif languages, Prefontaine admits the institute can't do it all alone. What's needed, he said, is for more co-operation between Metis organizations across Canada and beyond.
"There's a lot of like-minded, hard working, compassionate and passionate people across the Metis homeland who want to see their languages preserved, and I think we're going to need more cooperation between the Metis in the various provinces, and going into the United States, to help preserve the language. Because nobody can do this all on their own in an vacuum. There has to be more co-ordination," he said.
"In our own little way, we're trying to do our best to preserve Michif languages for future generations, and GDI welcomes the opportunity to work with anybody who is willing to preserve Michif languages. And we're looking forward to building initiatives with other Metis institutions ... we're always looking to build partnerships, because I think once you build partnerships, this is where the work gets done.
"We do our own little initiatives here but the broader picture means partnerships interprovincially, maybe even internationally with our Metis friends in North Dakota and Montana. We can work harder to help preserve the languages that way."
By Cheryl Petten
Windspeaker Staff Writer