The state of the Cree language in Saskatchewan


First Nations languages are disappearing across the province

Soloman Ratt recently published nêwo mêskanawa, or Four Roads a Cree book. / Haley Klassen

Soloman Ratt recently published nêwo mêskanawa, or Four Roads a Cree book. / Haley Klassen

The First Nations University of Canada (FNU) is making efforts to keep Aboriginal languages from disappearing, a threat that is all too real for many First Nations languages.

Dr. Arok Wolvengrey is an associate professor of linguistics and language studies at FNU and says that many First Nations languages are in danger of being lost. Cree is one of the most common languages spoken in the province, but it is still rare to hear it spoken publically.

“It is pretty rare to find younger speakers in the south [of the province],” explained Dr. Wolvengrey. “The residential school system discouraged the use of the language, and then even when the people didn’t use the language themselves, they came out of that situation with an attitude of, ‘We don’t want our kids and grandkids to go through the same things we did, so we’ll just teach them English.’ So it’s pretty rare, I think, or had been pretty rare, to even hear the language used publicly.”

Roman Young is studying Cree at the University and says the situation is slowly changing as younger generations become increasingly interested in learning the language. However, interest is not enough to keep the Cree language from being lost; people have to speak it often in order to keep it alive.

“Because [Cree] is rooted in Saskatchewan, a lot of people are interested in learning about it. They are trying to bring it back, but it isn’t consistently taught. After they learn it, they don’t practise it; they don’t use it all the time, so they eventually lose it,” said Young.

Currently, most Cree speakers live in the north of the province, often in smaller or more isolated communities.

“It’s good because they are still able to keep [and] practise their language, but it’s bad because in order for them to preserve their language, they have to remain isolated,” said Young.

Dr. Wolvengrey says that schools themselves cannot keep the language from disappearing; communities must be active. However, the reality is that communities lack resources to do so – teachers and funding are scarce.

“So much of their budgets have to go to the daily necessities of staying alive – having shelter and food – that there is often not a lot that can be put towards this [language development],” says Dr. Wolvengrey.

Additionally, there are not enough teachers with the depth of knowledge needed to teach Cree. Even a relatively large institution like the FNU struggles to find teachers.

“We had to bring [Leona Kroeskamp, Nakota language teacher] back [from retirement] to keep going because it is so difficult to find someone, and there are so few who are fluent speakers. They’re all elders, just about. Trying to figure out a way to foster some kind of communication between the elders and the young people is very taxing on the few speakers who are left to do that. It’s going to take something fairly radical to help,” said Dr. Wolvengrey.

Dr. Wolvengrey maintains that the responsibility to keep Aboriginal languages from disappearing lies not only with communities, but also with the government.

“The province could lead the way in this, actually, but it needs to happen federally as well, that the First Nations languages are recognized as official languages at some level. I don’t advocate necessarily that everything at the federal level has to be in all 53 languages, although that might be a good idea. But certainly provincially, each province should be able to take care of the languages that are spoken within its borders,” explained Dr. Wolvengrey. “Language is only going to survive when you use it and people hear it all the time. We really need to encourage that at all levels.”

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