Surrounded by English

Posted on April 20th, 2010 in: 1

Kammy Chocan flicks on her windshield wipers and ducks her head toward the steering wheel to peer out as she drives her daughter Emma to the powwow on highway 17.

It’s pouring and the red billboard welcoming us to Onion Lake is barely visible through the murky panes.

This is the half-hour drive Kammy’s husband Sandy Chocan makes each day to Onion Lake Cree Nation where he is principal at Kihew Waciston Cree Immersion school. The drive won’t be as long once they get their home on the reserve. But they’re not sure when that will happen. About 45 homes were built in 2009 and that’s still not enough. Kammy says several families often live in the same house. Many more live in town, in Lloydminster, which is 50 km away.

Once they are able, the Chocans hope to build their house near Sandy’s parents’ she says. In the meantime the family of four has been living in a bungalow on a quiet street in Lloydminster. It’s close to conveniences and schools.

The city itself has been booming. Nearby oil patches and the city’s refinery have helped boost the population 25 per cent in the last decade. Entire new neighbourhoods have cropped up.

With better jobs off the reserve, many find themselves making the highway 17 commute more often.

Most Onion Lake band members, though, around 3,000 of 4,000 according to the band, still live on the reserve. Kammy used to live at Onion Lake. It’s only a half-hour drive to the reserve, but she remembers 15 years ago not many people went into town more than twice a week. She says now many make the trip twice a day.

“I remember (my daughter) Desiree saying to me, ‘Oh, those are cute little streets!’ And she was talking about the sidewalks.”

In Lloydminster you won’t hear much Cree – on the streets or on the radio. There are no Cree programs in the schools. Kammy says it’s important for the programs to be bilingual, so that the children are well-versed in English.

“Let’s be realistic, apart from the First Nations University of Canada, you must have some English to participate in post-secondary education. And despite the fact you can go to the store and the band office and a bunch of places here and function entirely Cree, you need it to go to town.”

On days like today, with rain pouring, Kammy is thankful for the smooth highway. She drives past Kihew Waciston Cree Immersion School to the permanent arbour just north of there, home to the Onion Lake annual powwow. The arbour rises out of a grassy field, a covered dome sheltering a ring of bleachers and the dancing grounds. Motorhomes and orange tarps guard the tree line by the parked cars.

Behind some evergreens is the camp for elders; three teepees are erected in the clearing. A few boys hang around the entry path tapping the ground with bone-like sticks.

It’s still afternoon, but inside the arbour entire extended families fill the stands. Children and young adults almost outnumber adults, many donning dance outfits – for the jingle dance, chicken dance, or fancy.

Elementary-aged boys travel to the front of the crowd, sitting back on their toes, bodies rigid, as they take in the older male dancers.

Sandy joins Kammy and Emma in the fourth row of bleachers. It’s chilly and Kammy wraps a blanket over Emma and sits on another. Various people come by to chat. Kammy doesn’t speak much Cree – but she understands some. Her 21-year-old daughter Desiree never had the chance to take Cree immersion. Sandy says he is still trying to get Emma, 8, to speak more Cree, but they pulled her from the immersion program when they moved to Lloydminster, because of the commute.

For a while they tried translating and repeating everything in English into Cree.

“That just became very tiresome,” Kammy says. “But Sandy will speak to them and give them commands in Cree.”

She says she sees the benefits of learning the language: it engages people with their culture and for many provides a link to their grandparents. Sandy’s Grandma, for example, doesn’t speak English.

But despite cultural events like the annual pow-wow that attract the community and dancers from across Canada and the U.S., the language and culture program is still not attracting a majority of families.

Kihew Waciston has around 100 students in its nursery to Grade 4 program. The English-stream primary school at Onion Lake, which goes up to Grade 3, has 350.

Parents or grandparents are hesitant to enroll their children in the language and culture program if they had a negative experience growing up, Kammy says. She says some of the indifference or fear of school is passed down.

“When the grandparent raises a little one or the parent was raised with a distrust of the school it’s hard to get them in, to volunteer, and want to be there if they feel it’s an uncomfortable experience, whether it’s a residential school experience or just what’s been passed onto them.”

The problem of getting kids and parents into schools is one that spans all four schools at Onion Lake, Sandy says. He was used to 40 to 50 per cent of parents showing up for parent-teacher interviews, but 100 per cent showed up for the immersion evaluations, which were interactive between parent and child and replaced the traditional report card.

“They’d tell their parents (in Cree) what’s in the picture, at another station they’d do math, the basic concepts of addition, multiplication subtraction, science whether it’s parts of the flower, plants, living things, social studies.”

People young and old walk laps around the arbour. The sun is setting and the food stand lights are becoming more noticeable.

Blaine Harper, 16, of Onion Lake has spent most of the evening walking around the arbour with two friends. He says he doesn’t speak Cree very often – but wishes he could speak the language more.

“I speak it to my parents, to elders, to people who I want to give respect,” he says.

He and two of his friends took some Cree in school, but weren’t in the immersion program. All three express interest in knowing more of the language.

Brian MacDonald, former director of education of Kihew Waciston school, says young people are not being given a chance to learn the language outside of immersion.

“What’s being done (at the other schools), half an hour a day, won’t work.”

Inside the stadium, a contest is going on: a challenge to translate English sayings into Cree. The MC – a man with a big belt buckle and a beige cowboy hat – speaks in lilting tones into a microphone.

“And the phrase is… Facebook introduced me to my honey.”

In the stands nearly all the older people are paying attention. The MC approaches a man. He speaks Cree into the microphone and people laugh. Most of the young people don’t react to the punch lines.

“Alright, now we’re going to see if these juniors speak.”

The MC approaches a drumming group of young people who look like they are in their early 20s.

One young man stands up to the microphone – people in all parts of the stands erupt into big laughter as he speaks in fluent Cree.

The Future

The Onion Lake band council recently decided to expand the cultural aspects of the Kihew Waciston school program to all schools on the reserve.

While the cultural component will be boosted, the amount of Cree used in the classroom will likely only be 10-20 per cent, says Chocan, principal of the school, whereas at Kihew Waciston, Cree is used roughly 80-90 per cent of the time in the classrooms, except Grade 5, the transition grade next year, which will be bilingual.

“(The council) talked about instilling the spirit back into the kids of the community,” Chocan says.

In a city like Saskatoon, the pressure to create language programs is bolstered by statistics that indicate indigenous language use drops significantly in the city.

Cort Dogniez, co-ordinator of First Nations and Metis Education in Saskatoon Public Schools says the program needs to attract more parents if it’s going to continue. At the end of last year they only had seven students registered in the Grade 3 program, he says, which is not viable for a classroom.

He says they are lucky that Cree is the most spoken indigenous language in Saskatchewan, but the elders and older people who speak the language fluently are mainly in the north.

“You come into the urban setting – and more and more people are coming into the urban setting – you don’t use your language as much, so there’s that huge loss. So where will we be in 100 years? If we don’t have these programs, we really will be struggling,” he says. “It will become almost bastardized, because as you lose it you improvise, and that ‘pure’ Cree will be harder and harder to find.”

He says he would love to see enough students for the bilingual program go from kindergarten to Grade 12. The core-Cree program is just not enough, he says.

“Probably if you were looking at the core Cree program, you’d see kids saying what’s the use? What’s the point? … Where does it relate in my life? I remember thinking the same thing about core French. Like what’s the point? Where am I going to use this?”

In Saskatoon, Orest Murawsky, director of the Indian Teacher Education Program at the University of Saskatchewan, says it’s dissatisfying to see just two schools offering Cree bilingual programs. He notes those studying French have the option of attending a separate school, the Saskatoon French School.

He is part of the drive to create a separate school division for aboriginal people – the First Nations Urban School Division, which Murawsky says they hope to establish in Saskatoon by 2012, once it is approved by the Government of Saskatchewan.

“That would be totally an opportunity for First Nations kids to get into language, culture and tradition,” he says.

The division would be government-run, much like the Catholic and Public systems. The mandate would be to support First Nations identity, culture, tradition, and language through provincial curriculum.

He says they hope to increase retention rates and graduation among First Nations youth, which could involve a separate school.

But Murawsky doesn’t believe the city programs can offer the same kind of language learning as reserves where Cree is spoken by people outside the school.

“When the kids leave St. Frances or Confed what do they do? They go home. If the parents don’t speak they don’t get any, but whereas in a community, the community raises the child, so they’re always immersed in some kind of activity.”

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By the Numbers


Cree is by far the largest-spoken indigenous language in Canada with nearly 90,000 speakers.

Inuktitut has roughly 35,000 speakers and Ojibway 30,000 speakers.

Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway are the only three Aboriginal languages in Canada estimated to have enough speakers to survive in the long term.

About 47,000 people spoke Cree as their primary language at home.

Fewer people report having Cree as a mother tongue, but more people report being able to conduct a conversation, meaning more people are learning it as a second language.

Source: 2006 Census
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