By Patrick Quinn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
As the office of the Cree language commissioner prepares a month of activities throughout March, its initiatives are giving the language new visibility. For the first time, CBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics in Beijing featured Cree-language broadcasting during the opening ceremonies and key hockey games.
“We’re making history,” said Dorothy Stewart, who co-hosted with Betsy Longchap. “It’s been very exciting. We’ve had very positive feedback lots of people are really happy to hear our language being televised like that. It’s important we do the best we can and promote using the language properly.”
While Stewart is a former co-ed hockey player, she interviewed coaches to prepare for this opportunity, brushing up on hockey jargon and finding Cree translations for words like “penalty”. As the games approached, inspiration for explaining the action would sometimes come in her dreams.
“Our language is very descriptive,” Stewart asserted. “We don’t have `puck’ in Cree so we have to describe that black thing they pass around. How do you say it without the play passing you by?
You have to be in the moment so there’s a flow to it. It made the game exciting apparently!”
Like many residential school survivors, Stewart was determined to regain her Cree fluency. She would attend her father’s meetings as a tallyman, sit with Elders and took language classes in Wemindji. As host of CBC North’s Winschgaoug morning show, Stewart’s language mentors help her develop a rich vocabulary while staying fresh with emerging terminology.
“I’m picking up that level of language that’s not used every day because we want our listeners, most often Elders, to understand what we’re saying,” explained Stewart. “It’s my job and I see my grandsons enjoy this. The one in Mistissini who is nine told us his Cree culture teacher often records the show and they listen to it.”
These platforms for cultural representation are invaluable for language retention in the age of constant media exposure. While there are no statistics detailing Cree fluency since a language summit in 1997 and a 1989 survey, the consensus is that it’s in significant decline.
After the CNG passed the Cree Language Act in 2019, Jamie Moses was appointed to a five-year term as the first language commissioner a little over a year ago. The Act called for local governments, regional entities, businesses and other institutions to adopt and submit a Cree language plan for improving the use of Cree within their organizations.
“A lot has changed in our communities,” said Moses. “Like everywhere else, our Indigenous language is at threat because of the influence of the very fast pace of technology.”
Raised by his grandparents on the land, Moses believes those who choose traditional paths to cultural knowledge should be valued in Cree society. Noting that university graduates receive far better pay and opportunities than other language keepers, Moses recalled having to convince his grandfather to let him learn at the camp rather than focus on his education.
“I saw I was privileged to have my grandfather around,” Moses, 39, told the Nation. “I took that risk as a young man to master my language and cultural activities. I recognized the knowledge my grandparents carried needed to be absorbed by somebody else in the family, so these teachings are continued to the next generation.”
Moses now passes along this knowledge through regular videos posted on social media, just the previous evening he had been preparing bear grease until midnight.
“I always try to do a cultural activity and use technology to encourage others,” Moses explained. “By 7 o’clock I was able to share what we call Eeyou popcorn, a crispy fat almost like popcorn chicken. I let my grease cool down for a few hours and today I was able to distribute it with Elders in the community.”
After hiring Shannon Atsanaya as coordinator last summer, Moses appointed an ad-hoc advisory committee which met for the first time in November. The office helps Cree communities to access federal funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage to establish language departments. In the past year, six communities have received funding and two have applications under review, enabling local language kits, audio/visual documentation and language surveys.
Moses hopes to expand community partnerships with the Cree School Board and leverage their extensive language resources. With March recently named Cree Language Month, his team is launching a Facebook page and a variety of fun educational activities to promote language learning at all levels.
Noting the United Nation’s International Decade of Indigenous Languages begins this year, Moses recalled racist comments made after a CBC article about his appointment.
“It was crazy to see the amount of people who want to see us fail and lose our language,” said Moses. “The best approach would be to take our young people out on the land. In real life, sometimes that’s very difficult. We must find innovative ways to reach out, my dream would be to achieve programs and apps, but we won’t be able to achieve all of that alone.”
Patrick Quinn is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the NATION. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.