On the Front Lines of Indigenous Language Preservation: The Cree Literacy Program in Wemindji

By: Jordan Fleguel, School of Journalism, Ryerson University

Wemindji is a Cree community in Northern Quebec, about 1,300 kilometres north of Montreal. Most of its almost 2,000 residents speak English, and many speak Cree. There are those, however, who can speak Cree, but who don’t read or write in Cree very well. There are those who can speak some Cree, but who often have no reason to speak it instead of English, and there are those who can’t fluently speak Cree at all.

Theresa Georgekish is the Cree literacy coordinator for Wemindji. Her job is to raise awareness around the preservation of the Cree language in the community.

Teresa Georgekish,
Cree Literacy Coordinator for Wemindji

Through literacy classes and events, Georgekish says she hopes to keep the Cree language alive amongst people of all ages.

“It’s more than just the language that’s at stake, it’s our culture and our connection with the land. It’s all connected, and we stand to lose everything,” Georgekish said. “I try to work hard to raise awareness about that.”

The Cree literacy program was made possible with funding from the National Indian Brotherhood Trust Fund. It was created in part because the Cree language was in decline in Wemindji, with growing numbers of young people not learning the language.

Georgekish said that there had been a sense among some parents in Wemindji that being literate in French and English would be more beneficial for their children than being literate in Cree.

“Some [parents] said they didn’t want their kids learning in Cree, they wanted them learning in English so they’d be prepared for high school and jobs and university,” said Georgekish.

Georgekish said that despite these attitudes, progress is being made, and there are people of all ages that attend the Cree classes organized by the literacy program.

“There are younger people that want to learn the language, many of them are going into education and it’s required that they know some Cree,” said Georgekish. “There are older people who come to the classes, mostly first-generation that went to residential schools, because they weren’t allowed to speak their language. They can speak it now but they’re not as good at reading or writing Cree.”

One of the many devastating effects that residential schools had on Indigenous communities is that those who attended were forbidden to speak their language, and many lost it over time, meaning they couldn’t teach it to their own children, or properly communicate with those from their communities if they returned home.

Georgekish said that the transmission of knowledge from elders to younger generations – one of the most important aspects of Cree culture – has always been done in Cree, and losing the Cree language would mean the loss of centuries of cultural wisdom.

“If we lose our language, we lose sight of who we are,” said Georgekish. “It’s through transmission from elders that our culture is still alive, and right now we’re not doing our part of listening to the elders. We’re more focused on technology, and that’s okay, but it has to go hand in hand.”

Dr. Elaine Gold, director of the Canadian Language Museum, and her team help to raise awareness and conduct research on the subject of language preservation with touring exhibits, each dedicated to a language spoken in Canada, including one dedicated to Cree.

She says that by touring these exhibits across the country, more people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, will gain a deeper understanding of the many different languages spoken by Indigenous groups across Canada, and will come to realize that many of them are in danger of disappearing.

“Most people in Ontario have no idea that there are over 60 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada,” Gold said. “There’s so much we can learn from Indigenous language and culture.”

Gold said that although the museum raises awareness and conducts research on all languages spoken in Canada, she feels a special responsibility when it comes to Indigenous languages because unlike English or French, they’re only spoken here.

Before taking on the role of literacy coordinator, Georgekish was a teacher for many years. She says one way to preserve the Cree language is to make sure it’s taught in schools when children are young.

“If I had my way, we’d teach up to Grade 3 all in Cree,” she said, adding that in her experience, those kids who excelled at Cree at an early age also excelled at English. “When a kid is strong in one language, they’re strong in another language.”

Georgekish says that it’s crucial for the young people of Wemindji to learn Cree if the language is to survive. “If young people don’t learn the language, there won’t be a language.”

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