During the 2015 federal election, the Liberal party under Justin Trudeau pledged to resettle over 25,000 Syrian refugees. This became a polarizing issue in the election and in the Canadian population generally, as well as south of the border. Social media was full of vociferous debate about the practicality and ethics of accepting refugees. A common theme for those opposed to refugee resettlement was language. Concerns that refugees, once settled, would not assimilate and would not learn English were frequent. “I don’t want America to help Muslim refugees. They will not assimilate, learn English or become a Christian, don’t bother coming here” (Flaherty, 2015). “Refugees need to speak/learn English,have/learn a trade, or otherwise they will continue to be a burden to the world forever more” (Nankervis, 2015).
The learning of English as a requirement for entry into Canada, became a rallying call for Euro-Canadian intolerance.
During this time, I couldn’t help thinking about my own ancestors. My great great grandparents on my mom’s side came from Scotland in the mid 1800s. On my dad’s side, my great grandparents came from England in the early 1900s. I’m fairly certain none of them learned an Indigenous language. Certainly, no Indigenous language skills were passed on to my parents or myself. But, this is not surprising. Canada, as we know it, is a direct result of European immigrants who refused to assimilate into Indigenous cultures, who instead brought their own languages, cultures and institutions with them. Furthermore, not only did my ancestors not assimilate, they made every attempt to force the original inhabitants of this land to assimilate to British culture, and accept British institutions and legal constructs.
So how can Settler Canadians so vehemently insist on newcomers learning English? The hypocrisy is astounding.
And so it is thanks to 25,000 Syrian refugees, that I began to learn Cree.
My paternal great-grandparents homesteaded near Tisdale, Saskatchewan close to the James Smith Cree Nation. Of the many Indigenous languages to choose from, Cree makes sense historically for me but also practically as one of my friends teaches Cree. I have taken a class at the library and had a few private lessons. I have also bought a few books. Now, two years since this language journey began, I am very much still beginning.
I can greet my friend with “tânisi nitôtêm” (hello my friend). Our dog responds, most days, to “âstam” (come). When I hear someone say “môniyâw” (white person) I know they’re probably talking about me.
If you ask me how I am, I can respond “namôya nânitaw” (fine). But I often forget how to say “kiya mâka?” (and you?). Once at a ceremony, I introduced myself as “Claire nitisîyihkâsoyan” (My name is Claire) to a Cree elder and she looked at me blankly, having no idea what mangled words had just come out of my mouth. But, I keep trying. Neal McLeod (2016) ended the introduction to his book, 100 Days of Cree, with “kâya pakicî! âhkamêyimo!” (Don’t quit! Persevere!) (p.xv). So I soldier on.
In class I have tentatively introduced Cree to my students. In one of our Treaty Education assignments, students create a podcast where they go back in time to 1874 to interview someone about the signing of Treaty 4. Their Cree character must say “tânisi”. I have also labelled a few items in my classroom in French, English and Cree. But my attempts have been patchy at best.
So, I have to say I was a little jealous when I read about Regina teacher, Aaron Warner, bringing 100 Days of Cree to his classroom. Spending some time each day learning new Cree words and following the structure laid out in Neal McLeod’s book, is clearly, the way to go.
There is lots of research to support the benefits of learning additional languages. On an academic level, there is evidence that language learners transfer skills from one language to another (Cunningham & Graham, 2000) therefore enriching their language abilities overall. Other research has determined that those who speak multiple languages have an increased ability to ignore irrelevant information, switch between tasks and resolve conflict (Kroll & Bialystok, 2013). Healthwise, learning an additional language can delay the onset of Alzheimers disease (Craik, Bialystok, & Freedman, 2010). But perhaps most compellingly, on a relationship level, research suggests that language learners develop a more positive attitude toward the target language and speakers of that language (Riestra & Johnson, 1964). So students who learn Cree will likely develop a more positive attitude towards the Cree language and its speakers. What better way to work towards reconciliation than that?
As it turns out, learning an Indigenous language meets a significant number of our learning outcomes. Not only do we attend to several of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, but also to significant parts of our Treaty Education and Social Studies curricula. A Professional Learning Community is growing on Twitter using the hashtag #100DaysOfCree. A number of teachers throughout Saskatchewan are working together to start the 2017-18 school year with 100 Days of Cree. Please join us as we, “ê-mâmawi-atoskâtamahk”, we work on something together.
As for Syrian refugees, I am happy to call the growing Syrian population in my city, my neighbours. I have no language opinions for those who are newly arriving in Canada. But learning a little Cree couldn’t hurt.
Craik, F., Bialystok, E., Freedman, M. (2010). Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve. Neurology. 75(19), 1726-1729.
Cunningham, T. H., & Graham, C. R. (2000). Increasing native English vocabulary recognition through Spanish immersion: Cognate transfer from foreign to first language. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(1), 37-49.
Flaherty, Sean (@redcarolina). “I don’t want America to help Muslim refugees. They will not assimilate, learn English or become a Christian, don’t bother coming here.” 27 September 2015, 7:32 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/redcarolina/status/648113032619495424
Kroll, J. F., & Bialystok, E. (2013). Understanding the consequences of bilingualism for language processing and cognition. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 25, 497-514.
McLeod, N., & Wolvengrey, A. (2016). 100 days of Cree. Regina, Canada: University of Regina Press.
Nankervis, Diana (@diananankervis). “Refugees need to speak/learn English,have/learn a trade, or otherwise they will continue to be a burden to the world forever more.” 20 September 2015, 12:29 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/diananankervis/status/645469926132572160
Riestra, M. A., & Johnson, C. E. (1964). Changes in attitudes of elementary-school pupils toward foreign-speaking pupils resulting from the study of a foreign language. Journal of Experimental Education, 33(1), 65-72.
Teacher brings 100 days of Cree to Regina Grade 7 and 8 students (2016, October 9), CBCNews: Saskatchewan. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/teaching-cree-grade7and8-douglasschool-1.3798383