In the language of our ancestors

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Identity and belonging through Michif language revitalization in Greater Victoria 

Michif language revitalization
Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

The language almost sounds familiar. Its unusual verbs intertwine with French nouns in a grammatical structure that pulls me to the very edge of comprehension and leaves me yearning to understand. 

I sit in front of my laptop on a warm summer evening and, for the first time, listen to the language my ancestors most likely would have spoken when they lived nomadic lives as buffalo hunters and traders around the Red River area in the 1800s. Before that land was claimed as Canada, this was presumably the intricate language of my forebears. On my screen, the teacher proudly displays a red Métis sash on an easel notepad made for elementary school classrooms, a vibrant reminder of our common ancestry. 

This is my first class of Southern Michif, one of the traditional languages of the Métis. My fellow learners range in age, some grey haired, some sitting alongside their young children in the frame of my screen. Many of the learners, like me, get the vowel sounds stuck in their mouths or have to restart their phrases — the learning pains of acquiring a new language that humble us all. 

Our teacher is patient, but does not speak English unless it is necessary to explain a specific function or teaching of the language. She asks questions and repeats the answers to us; we mimic her. She opens a children’s book and reads to us, the pictures of little rabbits and dogs guiding us to comprehension.

When the class ends, no one says goodbye. There is no word in Michif for goodbye, instead we say “Ka-waapamitin” which translates to “I will see you again.”

“What we do and believe is that we’re always going to see each other again,” says Marlee Paterson, a fellow member of Métis Nation Greater Victoria (MNGV) and a Michif language learner. “We’re going to see each other in this life or in the next life, but we’re going to see you again. So that’s what we say.”

Michif is one of the many heritage languages of the Métis that are considered critically endangered today. In the 2016 Canadian census it was reported that less than 2% of the Métis population were able to hold a conversation in an Indigenous language, with only 1,170 of those people able to do so in Michif and many of them Elders. This lack of speakers and language knowledge keepers leaves those wishing to reclaim their traditional language with few opportunities to engage and learn a problem that could cause its extinction.

“When you mix those [two languages], you end up with a language that has all of the grammar of Cree and also has most of the grammar of French, but is largely incomprehensible to a speaker of either language even though they might recognize the words.”

Dale McCreery

For many Métis communities and people, learning the traditional language that their family spoke can be a way to feel a sense of belonging, an honouring of ancestors, and an integral piece of identity. Language revitalization, meaning bringing new life back to a language, is a long and difficult process with many challenges but it is one many Métis communities are urgently engaging in. 

“I suddenly felt like I have a responsibility to help pass this language along,” said Paterson over Zoom one summer morning. “Because my kids aren’t ready to receive it and the Elders aren’t going to be around when they are.” She has been actively learning Southern Michif in the hopes that she can help keep the language alive in her own home and broader community long enough for the future generations to take it up. “That’s my language and so I’m going to use it everywhere,” said Paterson. 

To her, using Michif in her day-to-day life is a way of being proud of her Métis heritage which wasn’t known to her while she was growing up in Manitoba. “To me, that’s our resistance, that’s our fighting back, that’s our decolonizing actively on the ground.”

Though the heritage languages of the Métis have been systemically displaced through the traumatic history of colonization, their origins are the result of a history of strong and diverse community ties and the intermingling of cultures.

The Métis people themselves emerged as a distinct Nation in the late 18th century as the mixed offspring of European fur traders and First Nations women in the historic Northwest. These people were different from both their fathers and mothers’ families and they grew up as a unique population with their own traditions, ways of being, and language that blended the cultures of their forebears.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the word “Michif” itself comes from the Plains pronunciation of Métif which means “of mixed blood” and thus it is also used as a term to refer to the Métis themselves. Part of the difficulty of new learners wishing to understand Michif today is that there are many different variations of it spoken by Métis people. 

Historically, different communities of Métis or Michif people described their language as they would describe themselves, the language of Michif or Michif language, which accounts for all the different languages that are identified as Michif today. According to Michif language revitalization experts, all these variations of Michif can be classified into three broader language categories: Northern Michif, Southern Michif, and Michif French. 

Southern Michif is also known by other names such as Michif Cree, aan Cree, and, simply, Michif. It was spoken mostly in the Red River Valley area in Manitoba and likely originated over 200 years ago.

“An intertwined or mixed language…likely came about as you had a lot of French-speaking fathers and Saulteaux-speaking mothers raising children in a community where the working language of the broader community was Plains Cree, the southern “Y” dialect Plains Cree,” said Dale McCreery who is finishing his PhD research at the University of Victoria focusing on best practices in language revitalization. McCreery is a Michif who has made his home and community in Bella Coola, B.C. He was able to learn and document Southern Michif through a mentor and apprentice program, and has worked to learn and document other endangered Indigenous languages as well.

“When you mix those [two languages], you end up with a language that has all of the grammar of Cree and also has most of the grammar of French, but is largely incomprehensible to a speaker of either language even though they might recognize the words.”

These historic Métis grew up being very multilingual, able to communicate with many First Nations communities, whom they shared family ties with, as well as with settlers who spoke French and English. They invented their own ways of communicating and their own languages naturally, as McCreery describes, and used them amongst themselves. 

According to learners and speakers of Michif language today, many teachings about the Métis and their culture are innately embedded into its words and phrases. Learning the language can also mean learning about the Métis people’s values, traditions, and ways of being they are beautifully interconnected. If the language is lost, either through fluents speakers’ passings or through the Métis youth’s inability to access resources, a path to understanding the Métis as a culture and people is also lost. This is why some Métis across Canada are engaging in language revitalization. 

“People [are] basically making a very bold statement, a very clear statement, that who we were was good and who we are is good,” said McCreely about the individuals and communities who are attempting to revitalize their own heritage languages. “Our languages, the stories we tell and the ways in which we communicated with those languages and the ways in which we use language to build relationships with each other is a part of being healthy.”

For McCreery himself, learning Michif has given him the ability to help others feel more grounded and connected in who they are as Indigenous peoples and this sentiment has been echoed by other Michif language learners in Greater Victoria. While he says that language isn’t the only way to do so, it has been a key way for people to build community and feel confident in who they are. 

McCreery’s PhD work is based on his premise that people engage with language revitalization because language is a quantifiable piece of identity that was lost through colonization and similar traumatic histories. “People can say, well I don’t know what I’ve lost, but I do know I’ve lost my language.” 

Many who work in language revitalization and reconciliation efforts recognize this deep interconnection between language, Indigenous identity, and belonging. Ry Moran, UVic’s current Associate University Librarian Reconciliation, worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that found that Canada was not putting sufficient value on Indigenous languages. The TRC consequently issued a number of direct calls to actions focusing on the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages in Canada.

“We have to invest in the protection and promotion of Indigenous languages really with the same level of tenacity as Canada invested in the destruction of Indigenous languages,” said Moran, who also worked on documenting Michif language early in his career. “[Canada] spent over 150 years trying to eradicate Indigenous languages from this land through the residential school system and other systems of enforced simulation and we have to do the exact inverse of that.” 

Recently, there have been more attempts by the Canadian government to protect endangered Indigenous languages. In June of this year the First Commissioner and Directors of Indigenous Languages were appointed as part of the Indigenous Languages Act that received Royal Assent in 2019. This new office, which represents all three of the recognized Indigenous groups in Canada, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation, is committed to ensuring that Indigenous languages flourish in the coming years. 

The Southern Michif class I attended through Zoom this summer was part of the Métis Nation Greater Victoria’s language program. The program began three years ago when their former president Patrick Harriott saw that there was a need in the community. During his nine years on the board, four of them as president, Harriott witnessed a tremendous upsurge of pride in the community for their Métis heritage. To Harriot, this upsurge meant that more and more Métis in Victoria were shaking off the shame and racism that had led many of their families in the past to hide who they were from the world. But they weren’t hiding any longer, and many of them desired to learn the language of their ancestors. 

“With COVID-19, everything moved into Zoom world,” said the MNGV’s current president Caitlin Bird. “It advanced how our community has been learning the language.” 

What Harriott and the MNGV board did not realize at that time was how difficult it would be to create a program around a language that was critically endangered, orally based, and lacked local speakers. 

“First of all, there isn’t much written. [Michif] was an oral language for a long time. It’s only recently that it’s started to be written down, and the writing wasn’t standardized,” said Harriott, who now works as the treasurer for Métis Nation British Columbia and holds the portfolio and ministerial titles for Culture, Language, Heritage and Citizenship and Community Services. This absence of standardized written resources was a difficulty for the program in its first year, but it wasn’t the program’s only obstacle. 

“The biggest challenge really is honestly the resources, especially when it comes to language keepers, like Elders and those who can still speak Michif. Because our greatest challenge is having the capacity to teach it,” said Harriott. 

In the years before online learning was prevalent, the MNGV had to fly out Michif speakers, such as the famous Norman Flurry, from other provinces like Saskatchewan and Manitoba. “There’s only so many Elders and fluent speakers left and of course they’re highly sought after and not all of them feel comfortable [teaching],” said Harriott, who is now advocating for Michif language revitalization at the provincial level in B.C. 

Slowly, the MNGV board was able to create a viable language program. From the outset, the program has been exceedingly popular. The board chose to teach Southern Michif both because it was the variation that had an available teacher, but also because that language was spoken in the area where most Métis in Greater Victoria could trace their family back to. 

The program itself took on many forms, with small groups of community members gathering throughout the capital region to learn the language through different methods. For instance, Paterson was first introduced to Michif through a community beading class where the members learned phrases and words in Michif as they beaded together. 

The main difficulty when the MNGV program was still in person was that the community didn’t have constant access to language speakers. The MNGV was working with speakers in Manitoba before the pandemic hit in March of 2020, but the technology was not up to date. 

“With COVID-19, everything moved into Zoom world,” said the MNGV’s current president Caitlin Bird. “It advanced how our community has been learning the language.” 

Now, instead of flying out a single language speaker twice a year, the MNGV community has access to a speaker and Michif classes every week. Not having a physical classroom also means that community members can log in from anywhere, even if they don’t have access to a vehicle or are tending to a young family at home. Bird continues to place value on the language program and hopes that she can keep it operating despite the obstacle of gaining adequate and predictable funding. 

“Because Indigenous languages haven’t been written down for so long, you have to develop all the resources, you have to create them all from scratch,” said Bird over a Zoom call. She says that one of the difficulties in continuing to offer a language program is the large financial commitments it takes for it to be viable. 

“Not only do you have to compensate fluent speakers for all their knowledge and their time, but you also have to put in money into creating and developing resources,” said Bird, who formerly was the language coordinator for the MNGV because of her personal interest in linguistics and language revitalization. 

Originally when Harriott and the MNGV board first wanted to start their program, they applied for a grant through the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, one of the leaders in language revitalization in B.C. today, and were successful. However, last year the MNGV was informed that Michif was now under federal jurisdiction, which, according to Bird, made the process of acquiring the proper funding more difficult. As of writing this, the program is still being offered with weekly classes and resources available to MNGV members. 

Paterson is one of the people who has been heavily involved with creating resources for the MNGV community. She and another language learner created Michif binders full of information available to those joining the language program. The binder includes cards and dice games that families can use with their children or partners so they can continue practicing even while at home.

As I talked to Paterson about her experience learning Michif on that summer morning, she pointed out that our conversation was very much in the tradition of the visiting way of the Métis. She explained that our ancestors, who were both from the Red River area, were visitors and storytellers, always dropping in on one another and building relationships. The act of visiting Keeoukaywin was an important part of the community, she says, and language is only a piece of that but it is an important one. 

“You can’t understand the language without accidentally finding out about Métis people and their culture and their traditions,” she said with a smile.“There’s an amazing opportunity for our Métis people to find their way back.”