Cree class overwhelmed by huge response

Perry Bergson
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Rev. Kenneth Davis of St. Albans and Rev. Sam Halkett of Little Red River Cree Nation pose in front of a large teepee that was put up in the church, which hosts weekly Cree classes taught by Halkett.

In early December, St. Alban’s Cathedral started a Cree class with the hopes of getting 20 participants.

It’s safe to say it’s worked out just fine.

With 79 students now taking part, Rev. Kenneth Davis of St. Albans says it speaks to the hunger that exists in the First Nations community to find their roots.

“I believe that existed; I really did,” he says. “I didn’t know if I could tap into it.”

Davis says more than 20 people signed up within the first week of the program being offered. Before the first session was held in January, there was more than 50.

Davis was originally driven to learn the language himself to help in his ministry. He was surprised to learn that no such lessons existed and that no tutors were available in Prince Albert.

Davis was finally able to start the class last month after a long search for funding led to a grant from the Anglican Church’s healing fund.

Rev. Sam Halkett of Little Red River Cree Nation instructs the class.

“When I see people and hear their stories, it’s gratifying,” Halkett says. “It’s giving back something that we lost along the road. And I think the most gratifying part is thinking about my grandparents who raised me and gave me the language and the culture every day. That strengthens me.”

There is a social element to the class, which is held every Monday at the beautiful church tucked in by the Gateway Mall. Supper is served between 5:30 and 6 p.m., with a 90-minute language session that follows. The evening wraps up at about 8 p.m.

Davis guesses that about three-quarters of the students have a Cree heritage and most are not members of the congregation. There are some white faces sprinkled among the students.

Halkett estimates some of the Cree speakers in the class are 60 to 70 per fluent in the language. He says even he isn’t 100 per cent -- despite growing up with the language -- because of variations in dialect by region and by age.

He says there is old Cree that a 100-year-old elder might speak, which is very different from modern Cree that some young people speak that infuses English elements into the language.

His class lies somewhere in the middle.

Halkett says although there are some tongue twisters, he doesn’t consider Cree a hard language to learn.

Finances will clearly remain a concern if the program is to have a long-term future.

The grant money has since been supplemented with some extra funds, with participants pitching in food for the pre-class meal they share.

“We’ve been trusting in God and waiting for good things to happen,” Davis says. “People have been bringing what they can and some people have been pushing donations into my hand kind of quietly during the class.”

Davis says the program has been invited to apply for money again next year from the healing fund.

The innovative structure of the learning will surely keep the pupils engaged.

During the first session, the class built an 18-foot teepee in the first week in the church hall. It’s still there.

“It’s exciting again,” Halkett says of teaching. “I’m back to work and enjoying it.

He noted he had given the materials he used when he used to teach so it takes a few weeks of preparatory work. He is going to access materials that the Lac La Ronge first nation has assembled to help.

Terry Pelletier of Kindersley is one of the students. He says his reason for attending was simple.

“For my culture,” he says. “A lot of the elders, we’d speak to them in English and they would speak to us to Cree. They’re always telling us, ‘Speak Cree,’ ‘Speak Cree,’ and that’s what is motivating me to do it.”

Halkett continues to get phone calls from people to ask if they are able to still join. And they can.

Davis says it just begins to tap at the quest for roots.

“There’s a great hunger and as people search for their own identity -- maybe they were raised by a non-Cree family … -- they have a real yearning too,” Davis says. “For lots of different reasons, people are saying they want to learn the language.”

Pelletier, who has Cree words carefully written in a book, says the class matters.

“It’s nice to learn the language,” Pelletier says, as he searches for the right words. “It’s a wholeness feeling.”

Organizations: First Nations, Anglican Church

Geographic location: Alban, Prince Albert, Little Red River Lac La Ronge Kindersley

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