By Carol Baldwin

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Wakaw Recorder

In 2018, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan partnered with the Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA) and has worked alongside Elders to integrate distinctions-based Métis cultural content and perspectives in the classroom. In 2020, MN-S partnered with five school divisions in three communities in a Michif Early Learning Pilot Project at select schools in Regina, Saskatoon and the Ile-a-la-Crosse school division. St Michael’s School and Westmount School in Saskatoon are two schools that have run the language program since the start. Westmount School is home to the Mii Taant leur Plaas (Autie’s Place) Michif Early Learning program for prekindergarten and kindergarten students. MN–S also worked to develop a Dene Early Learning Pilot Project with the Northern Lights School Division at La Loche. Then at its March 2022 meeting, the provincial Métis council voted to expand the program to include Living Sky, Northern Lights, Horizon, Good Spirit and Prairie Valley school divisions. The early learning programs receive funding from Métis Nation-Saskatchewan that assists with any additional costs of running the program, including professional learning opportunities and creating and distributing Métis/Michif resources.

On Friday, January 19th, Horizon School Division’s Superintendent of Indigenous Education Bryan McNabb and Métis Language Coach Lester Gardiner joined the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan for a meeting with other program facilitators from across Saskatchewan for a ‘check-in’ regarding the Early Language and Literacy Plan (ELLP). Director of Education, Kevin Garinger, said Horizon SD was fortunate to be included in this opportunity and that the Division was excited to offer the Michif language program at Wakaw School. “Teacher Katelyn Hopkins has jumped into this leadership role,” he shared in his weekly Division update.

Wakaw School’s Michif Enhancement Program will launch this fall and is meant to aid kindergarten students in building language skills and knowledge of Métis culture. The program will enable enrolled students to spend two additional mornings each week at school to build Michif-French language skills. Benefits of the program include language acquisition, increased academic success, socialization with peers, an opportunity to grow in Métis cultural identity, land-based learning opportunities, and community connections. “We are excited to have this project off the ground and look forward to expanding it in some of our other Horizon schools in the near future,” said Garinger.

Michif is the traditional Métis language that blends French and Plains Cree. “Michif” is commonly used to refer to any of three unique languages that formed alongside Métis culture: Michif French, Heritage Michif, and Northern Michif. Métis have been multilingual since the birth of the Métis Nation, speaking the languages of their neighbours and trading partners in addition to their own. Language remains an important part of Métis identity in contemporary times.

This is not MN-S’s first Michif-focused learning project. Similar offerings are available in 17 schools across the province. MN-S’s Ministry of Language is complete with coordinators, revitalization specialists, and resource developers, which, through the Federal government’s support, can fund and support these programs. Some schools have a language keeper a few days a week whereas others have it more spread out. Julia McCormick, MN-S Ministry of Language, is responsible for managing the programs and explained that programs have been developed for delivery in Northern Michif, Heritage Michif (sometimes referred to as Southern Michif), Michif French, Cree, and Dene. Each school that runs the program chooses which language to focus on.

Northern Michif is primarily spoken throughout northern Saskatchewan and parts of Northern Alberta; notably in Saskatchewan communities like Green Lake, Meadow Lake, Beauval, Île-à-la-Crosse, and Buffalo Narrows. Considered by some to be a dialect of Cree, but with a noticeable French influence, Northern Michif appears to have evolved independently. Elders and speakers of the language say that the French borrowings in Northern Michif were introduced by the clergy and school system rather than from Michif French.

Heritage Michif is spoken mainly from western Manitoba to central Alberta and in northern North Dakota and Montana. It originated among the bison-hunting Métis who lived on the plains. In Saskatchewan, it is spoken especially in the Yorkton, Cypress Hills, Qu’Appelle Valley, and Round Prairie/Saskatoon areas. The French element of Heritage Michif comes from Michif French, with the Algonquian element coming from dialects of Cree and Western Ojibwe (Saulteaux).

Michif French is spoken in certain communities stretching from western Ontario to central Alberta, with St. Louis and the surrounding area being where it is notably spoken in Saskatchewan. It may have originated on the eastern edge of the Métis homeland around the Great Lakes, from which many Métis families migrated to the Red River Settlement and beyond.

Language is a living entity that changes and grows over time, but when language develops in isolation resemblance to the modern evolution of its origin disappears. Thus, with a great deal of its vocabulary and grammar stemming from the old dialects of French spoken among the early voyageurs, Michif French is a vastly different language from Quebec French. Heritage Michif is considered unique among the world’s contact languages. It is often described as a blend of French nouns and Cree verbs, while Northern Michif substitutes French nouns mainly in the domestic domains, while animal names and numbers are all from Cree.

The program goals include language and cultural revitalization focusing on the young people in the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten age group because, as McCormick said, “they are little sponges with the language.” It is well documented that preschool children are particularly geared for language learning and that feeds out to the family and the community making the kids feel ‘great’ about their Métis identity.

Hopkins shared that the school hopes to have approximately eight children enrolled in the program, but that will depend on the number of families interested. From discussions held with Elders and others, Michif French was identified as the heritage language of the Métis in this area. St Louis also offers a Michif French program, and the Stobart Community School in Duck Lake offers a Northern Michif language program as a complement to their Cree language program.

Batoche Homeland Métis Local #51 president, Victor Guillet presented teacher Katelyn Hopkins and each of the future kindergarten students present, a gift of a Métis sash. Val Gaudet, a citizen of Local #51, prepared Bannock as a treat for the children as they wrapped up their orientation morning.

Photo: Upcoming 2024-25 kindergarten students with teacher, Katelyn Hopkins, and Métis Local #51 Pres. Victor Guillet and Métis citizen Val Gaudet provided by Carol Baldwin