With around 80,000 speakers, Cree is the most widely spoken First Nations language in Canada. But with the number of fluent speakers slowly dwindling, Cree is just as much at risk of becoming lost as the other 52 First Nations languages spoken throughout the country.
“I think most people would agree that virtually all First Nations languages in the country are in danger to one degree or another,” said Arok Wolvengrey, a linguistics professor at the First Nations University of Canada. “They often say that languages like Cree and Ojibway are the safe ones, because of the number of speakers. But it doesn’t matter if there’s a million speakers, if they aren’t teaching their children, and children aren’t hearing the language in their communities, then it will only be a matter of time until there are no speakers.”
A Cree class being held by the Prince Albert Multicultural Council (PMAC) is hoping to combat the decline of the language. Instructor Monica LaRiviere began teaching the class, offered this fall for the first time.
“I phoned wanting to take a Mandarin class and they asked me if I was also interested in a Cree class,” LaRiviere said. “I said that I knew Cree already. And they said that they were looking for a teacher and asked me if I would.”
Originally from Stanley Mission, LaRiviere spoke Cree as a child, but lost the language growing up.
My parents spoke the language and I spoke it when I was a toddler,” LaRiviere said. “And then we moved down south, and the kids there did not speak Cree. They had either lost their language, or their parents grew up in the city and they didn’t speak it.”
It wasn’t until moving back to Stanley Mission that LaRiviere once again became connected to that language.
“I went back home and my friends there were speaking the language and were talking to their parents, and I wanted that too,” LaRiviere said. “I started asking questions to my parents, and I got an interest.”
LaRiviere teaches the class at the PAMC every Thursday evening. She says the class is going well, and thinks she will teach it again when it is next offered in February.
Kathleen Stewart is one of LaRiviere’s students. Stewart says she decided to take the class for a variety of reasons, including wanting to sing in Cree.
“I’m an organist at my church, we’ve been working with Cree people, and I have some Cree in my background,” Stewart said. “None of my family speaks Cree, but I remember my grandmother speaking words in Cree that she learned from her grandmother. So it was something that was of interest to me.”
Stewart says the language class is about more than just learning how to speak Cree.
“It’s about learning our Canadian history and about the people around us,” Stewart said. “We’ve always asked people to learn what we do and so we should learn about they do.”
Wolvengrey says that classes such as the one offered at the PAMC will help the decline of the language, but more will have to be done to ensure its survival.
“We need to foster the use of the language so there are still communities where it is a common language, and then spread it out to the communities where it’s not. It needs to be a community effort where the speakers that they do have are encouraging people to learn and to use the language wherever and whenever they can.”
Wolvengrey says that a lack of resources as well as a lack of qualified language instructors are also issues that needs to be addressed in order for languages like Cree to live on.
“Language is one of the most complex things we do as human beings,” Wolvengrey said. “We take them for granted because we all learn one, but they are all exceeding complex things. Learning to use one properly takes a lot of time and a lot of exposure.”