History of Cree language programs

Posted on April 21st, 2010 in: 1

At the top of the bank of Long Lake on the Onion Lake reserve, wild grass has almost swallowed the teeter-totters rusting slowly into the prairie soil. This is where Sandy Chocan went to day school for four years. He was lucky. He only spent a week in the boarding part of the Roman Catholic residential school. His father lived there his entire school career until Grade 8. Parents were not allowed to visit. There were thoughts about turning the old school into a museum, but eventually it was torn down. Now the land it used to occupy is a level field of mud and grass. Despite the legacy of residential schools in Chocan’s family, most of his extended family is now involved in education. “Our grandfather told us that education was really important, that it would benefit us if we learned to live in both worlds,” Chocan says.

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Like most aboriginal languages in Canada, Cree is in decline. Fewer people speak it today than in the past – around 80,000 in 2006 compared to 88,000 in 1996, according to census data. Some 20,000 people report speaking Cree in Saskatchewan, according to Arok Wolvengray, language professor at the First Nations University of Canada.

A 2009 report by the Canadian Council on Learning – a non-profit organization devoted to education research – underlines the challenges. The report – “The State of Aboriginal Learning in Canada” – notes only 20 per cent of First Nations youth under age 15 speak their ancestral language at home.

The aboriginal population in Canada is also young. According to the 2006 census, the median age for aboriginal people was 27, compared to age 40 for the non-aboriginal population.

While Cree has been taught in reserve schools since the 1970s, immersion and bilingual programs have only popped up in the last decade and a half.

Fifteen years ago, parents of the children at Onion Lake Cree Nation’s three existing schools received a questionnaire. They were asked to rate their use of the Cree language and whether they would be interested in an immersion program.

Educators had heard of Mohawk communities in eastern Canada setting up immersion programs to retain their language. But they hadn’t heard of anything in the West. The Onion Lake Cree Nation has had control of the schools on the reserve since 1981 and the band council was interested in boosting cultural content.

There is good reason for finding alternative ways to teach the children at Onion Lake, says Brian MacDonald, former director of education of Kihew Waciston Cree Immersion School and one of the early initiators of Cree education at Onion Lake. First Nations people across Canada have lagged behind in high school and university attainment, and he says Onion Lake is no exception.

“We’re losing a whole whack of them at the Grade 10 level. And we know why: kids having kids. That’s another problem we’re facing. A lot of social issues we have to deal with, and in order to give back the pride, we have to teach those kids who they really are.

He says they have suicides, and drug and alcohol problems that are hitting the community.

About 40 per cent of aboriginal people age 20 to 24 had not completed high school compared to 13 per cent of non-aboriginal Canadians, according to 2006 census data and only eight per cent of aboriginal people had obtained a university degree compared to 23 per cent of non-aboriginal Canadians.

But MacDonald says at first some community members didn’t like the idea of expanding the immersion program. People are afraid of change, he says.

“We’re not stupid. We don’t try to teach these kids something out of the ordinary. We’re just trying to give them back who they really are, who they should be,” he says. “That’s what Cree immersion language teaching is all about. It’s not just the language. It’s the whole thing about identity, being proud, being confident.”

Demand was high the first year of the immersion program in 1995, says Irene Carter, curriculum developer and teacher. Onion Lake’s schools had had no Cree instruction at all for a year because the Cree instructors were seconded to develop Cree curriculum materials to address a chronic shortage. They needed everything – from science workbooks to math books to posters, she says.

Jean Okimasis, a curriculum developer who founded the aboriginal language teacher certificate program in Regina, says there is still much work to be done in terms of training teachers, distributing resources and research.

When she founded the certificate program in 1997, few Cree speakers could read or write Cree and language instruction books were rare. She says she once came across a Cree instruction book that included the following language drills with Cree and English translations:

“He is drunk again. He hit her again. She still loves him. God loves them.”

“I shoot the children, you shoot the children, he shoots the children . . .”

These books and exercises made her decide to write her own books on learning Cree.

In addition to expanding curriculum, educators at Onion Lake wanted a separate school for the program, says Terry Clark, director of education at Kihew Wacison Cree Immersion School. They felt it was necessary the children be separated from students in the English-only stream.

“If the kids are intermingling they’re going to speak English,” he says.

Kihew Waciston Cree Immersion School opened at Onion Lake in 2007. The building was paid for by the band, and the program moved out of the regular primary school. Grade 5 will begin at Kihew Waciston in the fall of 2010. The plan is to add another grade each year – which means they will have to find more space. The building is not large enough to go all the way to grade 8, as its capacity is only about 200.

City versus reserve

On reserves and in urban areas, aboriginal people are noticing a decline in the use of indigenous languages, but census data shows more people are learning Cree as a second language.

Cort Dogniez, the First Nations and Métis education co-ordinator for Saskatoon Public Schools, has been overseeing the division’s bilingual program since the idea first surfaced at an education council meeting five years ago.

A group of educators gathered at the end of the school year and discussed what was being done to support aboriginal language learning in the city.

“Of course the question just kind of hung there because we weren‘t doing anything,” Dogniez says. “I shouldn’t say we weren’t doing anything. We might have had two or three schools that had core Cree programs in them, but in terms of the rejuvenation of the language and the revitalization of the language, that’s not going to cut it.”

The city programs are known as bilingual programs because they integrate Cree and English into the school day roughly 50-50, diminishing the amount of Cree with each grade. Immersion programs, like the one at Kihew Waciston at Onion Lake, has teachers using Cree up to 90 per cent of the school day.

At first the city program was an immersion program, with the teacher speaking Cree almost all the time. Karen Rabbitskin taught the program at Confederation Park school its first year in 2005. She said she found the best way to teach the children was to make the children believe she couldn’t speak English and use her educational assistant to translate when necessary.

Most of her students had never heard Cree before.

“It was an English-speaking community, whereas here (at Onion Lake) it’s a Cree-speaking community. Here there’s a lot of people that speak the language. You hear it all the time, so it’s being validated.”

She says she had to work hard to make them understand why they were learning the language.

Dogniez says he was concerned the first year how the students would handle being spoken to only in Cree. He was surprised, he says, when he went in at the end of the year and saw the children responding to Rabbitskin’s commands and questions in Cree.

At the same time, some parents were concerned their children were not learning enough English. To address parent’s concerns, they switched to a bilingual program, where the teacher uses Cree and English an equal amount throughout the day.

Clark, the director at Kihew Waciston, says there’s a huge difference between the city programs and the one at Onion Lake, and it goes beyond the amount of Cree used in the classroom.

“Our program is supported by the culture, and in the city they do their best to bring in elders, but it’s not the same.”

He says the approach is different, since at Kihew Waciston they regularly take children outdoors to promote learning from first-hand experience.

“Kids need math and science, but much of that can be out on the land. That’s what we’re trying to get at through this program. You’re learning what’s important on the land – the utility of the language.”

According to 2006 census data, over 50 per cent of First Nation, Métis and Inuit people live in urban areas.

The urbanization is startling in light of reports of language use: only 12 per cent of aboriginal people living off reserve knew an aboriginal language, compared to 50 per cent of people living on reserve, according to the census.

Schools like Confederation Park are trying to meet the desire for First Nations parents living in the city to teach their children Cree. The Cree bilingual program at Confederation Park School began in 2005 with a provincial grant of $20,000 a year for three years to develop the program, Dogniez says. They also received money from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. All additional outside funding ended in 2009, and the program now operates on the same budget as any other class or program.

Initial skepticism

When the Cree kindergarten started up in 2007 at St. Frances Elementary School , Principal Jenise Vangool says it took time for everyone to get on board.

“I think in the beginning it took a bit of adjustment for the community to feel that they wanted to embrace the Cree bilingual program.”

She says there were a lot of questions, like whether St. Frances would become a fully-Cree language school. There was even fear about First Nations culture.

“Some people had a bit of a resignation or ignorance or bias around the First Nations culture and were fearful that ‘Oh we’re going to be bringing in crime and poverty into our area.’”

She says most of their students are bussed in from the inner city, but all the parents embrace education.

“They try to support us as much as they can, and often it’s the extended family coming in – grandparents.”

One grandparent, Seraphine Pee-Ace didn’t know a word of English before she started residential school. Fifty three years later, the situation is reversed for her grandchildren.

“I’m 60 now, I have to think in Cree first what I’m going to say. That’s what will be happening with them too, except thinking in English what they want to say in Cree.”

She says if the program doesn’t expand beyond a few years in elementary school, it will have no meaning, as her grandchildren don’t speak Cree at home.

“If it’s not continued, this will be a nothing class – that’s how I see it. It will mean nothing, because in all the other grades, they won’t use it.”

Pee-Ace is one of many parents and grandparents of children in the program who was forced to attend residential school.

When I first started school I wasn’t allowed to speak Cree. Just sitting there like we’re dumb. And then every once in a while someone would say ‘You savages!’ It would be one of the first English words I knew.”

– Seraphine Pee-Ace, grandmother.

She points out the large amount of government money that was allotted to force First Nations people to speak English.

“First they take the language away and, all of a sudden, ‘Oh, we have to fix this type of thing.’ They should have just accepted us and accepted our language.”

But she is trying to help her grandchildren learn the language. The young generation is bringing new challenges with it.

“Alysse asked me, ‘how do you say remote? How do you say this in Cree?’ I was sitting there and I thought, there is nothing. We never had that. But to me how I’d say it is ‘Otenga’ – it opens things. But how would I say TV or stereo?”

She sometimes brings her granddaughters to her reserve – Beardy’s Okemasis First Nation – where they can hear more Cree. She says it would mean a great deal to her for them to have conversations in the language.


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History of residential schools

1857 - The first official law to replace indigenous culture with European culture was passed in the Canadian legislative assembly and council. The act was "To Encourage Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes of this Province."

1880s - The first state-funded church-run residential schools begin operating in Canada.

1920 - All aboriginal children have to attend school and are forcibly taken from their families by clergy, Indian agents and law enforcement officers.

1931 - 80 residential schools are operating in Canada.

1979 – 12 residential schools remain with
1,899 students.

1980s - Former residential school students begin to tell of sexual and other forms of abuse they received at school.

1996 - The last federally-run residential school, the Gordon Residential School, closes in Saskatchewan.

1998 - The Aboriginal Healing Foundation is established to aid the 150,000 some survivors of Indian Residential Schools, their families and communities.

2007 – The federal government offers residential school survivors a total of $1.9 billion in compensation for the abuse they suffered in residential schools.

2008 – Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives a formal apology to residential school survivors for the government’s role in financing residential schools.

2008 - $1.19 billion in federal compensation had been paid out to 61,473 residential school survivors (Source: CBC)

Sources: Assembly of First Nations and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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