To ensure the Cree language prevails across Eeyou Istchee, the Cree School Board and the Office of the Cree Language Commissioner are focussing on ways to preserve and promote the Cree language and culture in and outside school, among students and community members.
CSB Chairperson Sarah Pash said teachers are becoming concerned about the level of Cree proficiency. “It’s not just the pandemic – this is a problem that’s been building over the past decade,” she said.
However, the pandemic impacted children in ways that have yet to be quantified. “We know the last normal school year for children was 2018-2019. So, students who are now in Grade 4 had their last normal school year in kindergarten,” she observed.
For two years, the school board has been preparing a Cree language proficiency research project that will be launched in the next school year. A team of linguists working with Cree language consultants will assess students at all grade levels.
“What we’d love to see as parents are children emerging from schools as fluent language speakers, able to work and live in the language, able to use it in authentic ways,” added Pash.
“We need to look at how proficient our students are in the Cree language, how well they are speaking, how are they writing, what’s their general knowledge in terms of vocabulary and ability to use the language in different contexts,” she explained. “From there we’ll know where the gaps are and where we need to put resources for programs and materials.”
A CSB Covid recovery plan will respond to the social, emotional and mental health needs of students coming out of pandemic measures, said Pash. It will look at literacy, student engagement and attendance to “bridge learning gaps, doing detailed diagnostics on students and putting into place interventions to address those needs.”
Pash wants to hire Cree language tutors to support students who need the most help, while aiding parents reinforce the use of Cree at home. The CSB is also partnering with McGill University to deliver a full-time Bachelor of Education program; the first cohort of 30 students is already halfway through the four-year program.
Land-based education is another focus. A pilot program at the elementary school in Chisasibi is a powerful way to engage students, help them develop their sense of self, learn the language, and create connections with Elders, said Pash.
Perhaps the biggest reflection of this renewed focus on Cree language and culture is the CSB’s newly created Eeyou Iihtuwin Research and Development Department. It will conduct research at the community level with Elders and support all other departments in developing cultural initiatives and programming.
Angela Gates, Director of the new department and interim Coordinator of Cree Programs, is dismayed when she doesn’t hear much Cree outside of school hours. “It’s sad to say,” she shared. “It’s the part we all need to work on together as a community.”
Gates sees the new department providing “language and culture within the whole school board, not just within the classroom. We’re coming into thought processes and creating things in the Cree way.”
Her team is tasked with developing materials that can be used by students from elementary to high school. They include a Cree language kit, posters, flash cards and books. They also created lesson plans to go along with video interviews of Elders from all nine communities.
Her team is to get resources into “more apps and gadgets” that students could use. They also created a website, eastcree.org, with resources for all levels of learners.
But at the end of the day, Gates said parents need to understand that the language has to be practiced at home, and the children need to be brought out onto the land. She points to Cree heritage activities that happen almost daily in Chisasibi, including cultural activities, legends and storytelling.
“The values that we were taught growing up is something that should be kept, as we pass on to our own children and grandchildren,” she added. “Our language is very important to us, and I wish everyone realized this.”
It’s a challenge that Cree Language Commissioner Jamie Moses knows very well.
In May, Moses took part in a tour of Mistissini, Ouje-Bougoumou and Waswanipi to meet Cree culture teachers and get feedback on their needs and concerns, as well as to let people know about his role as language commissioner. He said each community had slightly different needs, from not having their dialect represented in materials to different levels of spoken Cree.
He said there’s a huge need for teachers, translators and interpreters, as many of them can’t take on more work helping with events, community statements, or translating documents like annual reports.
Moses said he heard a demand for land-based programming. “Culture and language coincide; when you do cultural activities, cleaning and plucking goose, you’re doing something more than reading a textbook,” he added, saying that learning the language for an hour in a classroom is sufficient.
This is a key time to reach young people, he said, especially those between 15-20, who may sign up for canoe or snowshoe trips and these activities can help them decide what they want to do with their lives. Moses called for communities to do better at being consistent with organizing cultural and language events, saying that sometimes lapses in funding meant young people missed out on opportunities.