Cree language: Reviving the language in Canada

Cree as a language is dying out, but language revival efforts are being enacted, and the communities where such efforts are going on are reaping great benefits.

We have already had a look at the way language revival and maintenance are being handled in Europe, so we thought it would be interesting to take a look across the pond and see how the Canadians are handling a similar situation! Let’s dive in. 

The Cree language

The Cree language, also known as Cree–Montagnais–Naskapi, is a language found in the Algonquian language family. It is one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages in Canada, with 96,575 people reporting speaking it in the 2016 census.

Often written in syllabics (i.e., symbols representing a combination of a consonant and a vowel), Cree is spoken in the northwestern territories of Canada and also in northern Montana in the United States. Even though the Cree language is still declining like other languages such as Icelandic, work is being done to promote and preserve it.

Cree Language

Keeping the Cree language alive

All over the world, indigenous languages are struggling to survive. In Canada, there are over 60 different indigenous languages, and they have been endangered for decades due to many contributing factors. 

Canada’s history of sending students to residential schools had a partial deliberate aim at preventing students from speaking their native languages, which means that today, only a few people have the knowledge necessary to pass on these native languages.

So, how is Canada addressing what has been identified as a definite cultural problem? Well, the country has invested substantial time and energy into language revitalization efforts. This involves local communities creating language-learning programs and services to keep languages like Cree alive and flourishing. 

Revitalization and preservation of indigenous languages have positive effects on communities where said languages once were vital. Studies have shown that learning and having the ability to speak an indigenous language improves peoples’ self-esteem, improves academic success, and creates a large sense of community culture.

The unspoken network of cultural values

Aboriginal languages reflect the unique ways that different groups of people view and relate to the world. Each language or dialect carries an unspoken network of cultural values that greatly impact language speakers’ self-awareness and identity.

For most aboriginal Canadians, culture and language were widely separated, meaning that many young people were operating in two different worlds, with only one language. In an effort to maintain the knowledge of the Cree language, indigenous language programs have been developing somewhat organically, as people understand the reality of today’s situation in Canada.

Language revitalization is no easy task. As Harvard-educated nurse and lawyer Melissa Daniels can attest. In 2015 she was working with her First Nation in the northern portion of Alberta, Canada, to document traditional laws by conducting interviews with community Elders. However, the young woman was missing out on a lot of the information due to her lack of fluency in the Elders’ native tongue. After relying on translators to try to parse together the traditional laws and customs, Daniels decided to move back to her home territory and learn the native language herself, in order to fully understand the aboriginal culture. “I was missing key pieces,” she said, “and the reason why was that I didn’t know my language.”

Current efforts to revitalize the Cree language

The Canadian government now invests in promoting aboriginal language education in schools, although some, such as Dr Trish Rosborough, a professor of Indigenous Language Revitalization at the University of Victoria (UVic), call for a more robust approach that would allow for indigenous language use in more aspects of everyday life. “For years, what we’ve done with Indigenous languages is thought that the school could save our languages for us, so we would teach them to kids at school, but they would only ever use the language in the language class; they weren’t using it outside of that setting. So, we just really want to bring it to where we live.”

Aboriginal boy

Image source

In Canada in particular, the Aboriginal Languages Initiative (ALI) supports the preservation, promotion, and revitalization of First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages through community-based projects and activities, including printed resources in an Indigenous language, language classes and the development of language preservation strategies. Examples of eligible projects include community-based activities such as: 

  • recording, documenting and preserving endangered Aboriginal languages; 
  • developing materials to increase Aboriginal language use and proficiency; 
  • developing programs for training and certifying Aboriginal language teachers and resource people in the community; 
  • developing systems for facilitating communications in Aboriginal languages; 
  • promoting traditional approaches to learning, such as language camps, immersion programs, etc;
  • and developing mechanisms for digital tools to share information, materials, and other resources among Aboriginal languages groups.

Interested in language diversity and the current efforts to preserve languages worldwide? Learn how the EU promotes linguistic diversity.  

In Canada, the systematic removal of indigenous languages in the past century has meant that the sensitive subject has incredible importance and remains at the forefront of politics. The Canadian government’s efforts will continue to grow. 

We look forward to seeing more and more Canadian youth speaking their native language in addition to English or French!