Strengthening our Language & Culture Through Literacy

Keynote Address presented by Dr. Kevin Brousseau at the Cree School Board’s Annual General AssemblyFebruary 26, 2020

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ᑴᔾ, ᒋ ᐴᔔᐦᑳᑎᓈᐙᐤ ᒥᓯᐌ᙮

ᓃᔥᑕᒻ ᓂᐐ ᓇᓈᔅᑯᒫᐗᒡ ᐊᓂᒋ ᑳ ᓇᑐᒥᑣᐤ ᒉ ᐯᒋ ᐊᔭᒥᔮᓐ ᐆᑕ ᐊᓄᐦᒌᔥ᙮ ᐃᐦᑖᒉᓂᒡ ᐆᑕ ᐊᐌᓂᒋ ᐁᑳ ᐁ ᒋᔅᒉᔨᒥᑣᐤ ᐊᐌᓐ ᐃᔮᐎᔮᓐ᙮ ᐙᔂᓂᐲᐎᔨᓂᐤ ᓃᔾ, ᕕᓐ ᕉᓴᐤ ᓂᑦ ᐃᔑᓂᐦᑳᓱᓐ᙮ᑲᓈᔥ ᓀᔥᑦ ᒋᓐ ᓂᑑᑌᒪᒡ᙮ ᐊᐗᓯᑌ ᓃᔥᑕᓇᐤ ᐱᐳᓐ ᓂᑦ ᐋᐸᑎᓰᐦᑲᐦᑌᓐ ᒋᑦ ᐊᔭᒥᐎᓂᓇᐤ᙮ ᓂᔮᔭᓄ ᐱᐳᓐ ᒫᒃ ᐊᔅᐱᓐ ᓂᒌ ᐴᓂ ᐋᐸᑎᓰᓐ ᐆᑌ ᐅᒉᐳᑲᒨᐦᒡ ᒦᓐ ᒉ ᓇᑕᐎ ᐃᔅᑰᓕᐎᔮᓐ ᓇᑐᐦᑯᔨᓐ ᒉᒌ ᐃᑖᐸᑎᓰᔮᓐ᙮ ᐁᑾᓐ ᐊᓄᐦᒌᔥ ᐁ ᐃᑖᐸᑎᓰᔮᓐ ᐊᓐᑌ ᑎᒥᓐᔅ᙮ ᐊᓐᑌ ᒫᒃ ᓃᑳᓂᐦᒡ ᓂ ᐸᑯᓭᔨᐦᑌᓐ ᑳᐤ ᒉ ᐯᒋ ᒌᐌᔮᓐ ᐃᔨᓂᐤ ᐅᑌᓈᐦᒡ ᒉᒌ ᐋᐸᑎᓰᔮᓐ᙮

ᒉ ᐊᔭᒥᐦᐃᑕᑯᒡ ᒫᒃ ᐊᓄᐦᒌᔥ ᓂᑲ ᐌᒥᔥᑎᑰᔒᐎ ᐊᔭᒥᓐ ᐁᑕᑕᐤ ᒉᒌ ᐸᔭᐦᑌᐦᑖᑯᐦᐃᑎᓱᔮᓐ᙮ ᐁᑯᑌ᙮

As many of you know, my family and I lost our beloved matriarch this past year, my grandmother Mary Jane Kitchen. From a young age, I had been especially close to this grandmother as she would often spend time with us in our home along the highway between Senneterre and Val-d’Or. In fact, as a child I had always been close to both my grandmothers and the two of them have gifted me with many beautiful memories of my childhood. I can certainly say they’ve had a lasting impact on the development of my character and my values as a man today.

My late grandmother instilled in most of those who knew her a deep respect for our language and culture, and this is certainly the case for me as well. In fact, my main motivation for learning to speak our language, as many of you know I did not speak Cree as a child, was to be able to communicate in Cree with my Cree grandmother in the same way I could communicate in French with my French grandmother. I’m glad to say I achieved that goal.

My earliest memories of my late grandmother, surprisingly, were not of her setting snares, though there are certainly many of those memories. They also were not of her beading, though she certainly beaded on nearly a daily basis. My earliest memories were not of her ᐋᔭᐦᑯᓈᐤ, nor her ᓰᐹᔾ. In fact, my earliest memories of my late grandmother were of her reading. This is because my grandmother, who spoke only Cree, read on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. I can still see her, every night before bed, pulling out her Bible or prayer book and reading. She would often sound out the syllabic characters for me as I sat next to her. In fact, this is how I learned how to read Cree before I even understood what I was reading. I can still remember telling her about this book I had found one day titled ᐸᐹᒧᐦᑌᐤ ᐁ ᐱᒥᐱᒋᑦ. This work of fiction, published in 1886, was a Moose Cree translation of John Bunyan’s 1678 book titled Pilgrim’s Progress. It was translated by Thomas Vincent, a Cree clergyman of the Church of England. What struck me about this memory was how my grandmother already knew of this book and had in fact read it as a young woman. She proceeded to tell me what it was about and explained how she managed to get her hands on a copy years ago and how her late brother had also read it.

But she was not the only one with a love of reading – my late great aunt Meliy-ânish Saganash once told me about how the men long ago would carry their prayer books in specially made book bags on hunting or trapping expeditions. They would bring the books along to have something to read during their breaks and evenings while on these long trips. Clearly, reading was appreciated by many in the older generations.

My own grandmother’s love of reading was likely transmitted to my mother. Although she reads in English, she does so every evening before bed and has done so for as long as I can remember. I can only imagine the number of books my mother has read in her lifetime, but it is likely only surpassed by the number of baby blankets she’s made over the years. I can tell you, however, that she would likely be unhappy were she unable to continue reading. In fact, she tells me her late father would discipline her by hiding her Archie comics as a young woman. Ever the joker, he once hid her books by tying them above her bed, which she only discovered when she lied down for sleep that evening.

As a result, I grew up in a home where books were present and reading was expected. As children, my mother would often read books to my siblings and I. She tells me how I once told her, at 3 or 4 years old, that I couldn’t wait to start reading on my own. I can now confirm that being an avid reader over the years has definitely been the key to my success. And I have passed on this love of reading to my own children.

But I mention these memories for another reason that I think is relevant to our present situation. You see, we often speak of our language and culture as things divorced from education, generally, and literacy, specifically. How many times have we heard this notion that our culture and language belong in the bush? Or that we have an oral tradition? Certainly those statements are correct, but they also imply a restricted perspective. If our culture and language belong in the bush, do they not also belong in our communities and in our schools? And if we have inherited an oral tradition, should we not write our thoughts down in Cree? It is almost as if we use these statements to permit the encroachment of non-Cree culture and language into our homes and communities. An equally correct statement that would be more expansive is that our culture and language belong wherever we are as Cree people, whether in the bush, in the community, in the office, in the school, or anywhere else we chose to be.

But more unsettling notions that surface from time to time are that the culture and language are partly responsible for the poor performance of students in our schools – that their presence in our schools somehow takes away from the rest of the curriculum. Consider a nation state such as India, where numerous languages are spoken, each with its own dialects. In this particular country, the linguistic curriculum teaches the local regional language, whether that be Punjabi, Gujrati, or Malayalam, but also teaches the national language, in this case Hindi, along with English as an international language. Presently, in Timmins, there are hundreds of international students attending the local college, most of them from India. How is it that these students arrive in this country speaking English, along with two other languages? Why are their schools successful at providing a trilingual education, yet we struggle with simply providing a high-quality bilingual environment?

I would advance that there are numerous factors involved, true, but that an important one is undoubtedly this restricted perspective we often endorse regarding our own language and culture. We often speak of these things as belonging to the bush, as I previously mentioned, but also as things that are frozen in time – things that do not, or should not, change.

Yet, by definition, all cultures and languages must change. They must adapt to changes in technology. They must adapt to changes in the economy. They must adapt to changing political systems. Yet even without all of these forces, cultures and languages do change from one generation to another as dictated by personal idiosyncrasies and human innovation. Our ancesters were certainly responsible for changes in our language and culture over the last few centuries of contact with European peoples.

The adoption of the gun, the outboard motor, cloth clothing, and glass beads are all examples of changes in technology that have become fully integrated into our culture. These examples of foreign technology all came to us through a realignment of our trading partners, from indigenous peoples in the south to European traders from across the ocean. Aside from technology, this change from the previous economic system led to many changes in our language. In addition to having to name new technology, such as the items I just mentioned, European words were also adopted and adapted into our language. Older greetings such as ᑴᔾ, a testament to our trade relationships with indigenous partners to the south prior to arrival of Europeans, were replaced along the coast by ᐙᒋᔦ, a word derived from an old British greeting, and near French communities by ᐴᔔ, derived from bonjour. Thus, we now greet one another with ᒋ ᐙᒋᔦᒥᑎᓐ or ᒋ ᐴᔔᐦᑳᑎᓐ, both words being ultimately derived from English and French, respectively. And as Europeans increasingly settled in these lands, so did our political system change, leading us also change the way we speak about governing ourselves in our own language. None of these changes to our culture and language come as any surprise to any of us today – we all accept these changes as part of who we are. In the same way, our ancestors embraced literacy – both reading and writing – to such an extent that it has been estimated that the overwhelming majority of the adult population in the pre-residential school era could read in Cree. How things have changed today.

We would not be talking about strengthening our language and culture at this general assembly if we did not believe that their futures were uncertain. But the problem cannot be the culture, or the language itself, for both of these things have proven, over the last few centuries, to be perfectly adaptable to our ever-changing realities as Cree people. However, we must acknowledge that the integrity of our language and culture has suffered through the great social upheaval that began with the residential school system, where children were robbed of their traditional education in favour or an assimilatory agenda imposed by the Canadian government. As we all know too well, this tragedy did not leave us unscathed. But in the years that followed we nonetheless managed to empower ourselves as a distinct nation in order to forge through the colonial status quo that continues to fetter too many indigenous peoples in this country. In the process, we managed to establish our very own Cree School Board, a powerful entity with so much potential that unfortunately continues to be underestimated and underappreciated by many of our own people. This needs to change, for the Cree School Board will be the fulcrum of our future success or failure as a nation.

Despite this heavy burden, most of us also expect the Cree School Board to have a part to play in the transmission of our culture and language. In this regard, I believe too little attention has been placed on crafting a high-quality curriculum that leads to the acquisition of a Cree literacy that is on par with the education our students receive in English and French. But why so much talk about literacy? It’s quite simple really – in this era of information I believe literacy in English, French, and Cree will be that which will tip us towards success as individuals and collectively as a nation. Literacy will not solve anything in and of itself, but it will produce thoughtful and knowlegeable individuals who will. And although our culture, as any other culture, cannot be simply transmitted by the written word, so much of what is presently in danger of being lost can. Around the world, literacy is a key component of culture and language – why would it not be so for us as well?

I would like to emphasize that much has been done in the way of developing literacy in our language since we have taken control of our own education. The Cree Way Project, for which the late Annie Whiskeychan was known, did great strides at providing school children with reading material. Following that, numerous authors from every community have also contributed to the Cree School Board by writing their stories for students. A need for proper reference materials led to the production of dictionaries of our own dialects, a project that has spanned a few decades and which required the collaboration of speakers from many communities. Yet, despite all this effort the average child who makes it through our school system is not comfortably literate in Cree, and nowhere is this more apparent than on Facebook. Some may laugh, but I think we can safely say we have succeeded when our language starts taking precedence over English and French in public spheres, including social media.

Our culture and language are of utmost importance if we are to persist as a distinct nation. So let us not be discouraged! Each and every one of us can be an ambassador for the culture and language. And each and every one of us holds a piece of the solution. No one here knows every word in our language. No one knows every single ᐋᑕᔫᐦᑳᓐ. And no one knows every bit of local history or every single traditional skill, though some certainly seem to come close. Strengthening our culture and language, and transmitting it to the next generation, is something we must do together – for it is when they are experienced together, as families, as communities, and as a nation, that our culture and language mean the most.