BY Hannah Owczar
Three years ago, Cameron Adams heard an Indigenous language spoken for the first time. Today, he’s semi-fluent in Cree and developing a Swampy Cree language app.
Adams, 19, was inspired to learn Cree after hearing an Elder speak at an Indigenous studies event.
“She spoke in Ojibwe and I had never heard any Indigenous languages before, and I’d never even heard the term Indigenous,” says the now second-year Indigenous Studies student. “I was wowed.”
Adams says he discovered he was Cree soon after. As he was learning Swampy Cree, a dialect of Cree, he says there was a lack of language resources available.
Adams hopes the app he’s developing, which landed him a nomination for CBC Manitoba’s Future 40 in 2018, will fill this gap. He said the app will include phrases and audio clips so people can hear pronunciations while learning the language.
“I want to save this language,” he says. “It’s important because these languages have always been around but have gone from being primarily spoken in communities to barely spoken.”
Adams says his great-grandmother grew up speaking Swampy Cree in her Norway House community but lost much of the language when she attended day school in the 1940s and 50s.
According to a 2015 Statistics Canada report, over 70 Indigenous languages are spoken across Canada, however, the report claimed only 15.6 per cent of Canada’s Indigenous population are able to conduct a conversation in an Indigenous language.
The decline of these languages stemmed from assimilation policies like the Indian residential school system, which removed and isolated Indigenous children from their families, stated a 2015 Assembly of First Nations report.
Universities and colleges in Manitoba are beginning to recognize and incorporate Indigenous language courses in their programming. In November, the University of Winnipeg received a $138,769 grant from the Aboriginal Languages Initiative (ALI), a federal government program that financially supports the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages,
for community language programs. According to the University of Winnipeg, these programs will run through the Wii Chiiwaakanak Learning Centre, a centre that bridges and connects the university with Indigenous and inner-city communities in Winnipeg.
Red River College offers a one-year certificate program that teaches reading, writing and speaking of Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Anishinaabe nation.
Melanie Kennedy, executive director of Indigenous Languages of Manitoba Inc., says it’s important to teach Indigenous languages because it’s part of understanding your identity.
“Language is just so incredibly important because it’s part of your culture. Having that language gives you a different type of strength,” she says. “It’s like a missing piece. By learning your language you’re finding that piece.”