Non-standard French in the Uashat mak Mani-Utenam reserve: a case study

Simon Desmarais – Blog post 2

Reading and learning about language, society and ethnicity in the past week made me think of a particular situation from my own personal experience. We could almost call it a ‘case study’, quite related to the ‘Language and Critical Race theory’ framework I think, that pertains to language and society, class, culture and ethnicity.  The situation is that of First Nations people who live in my hometown, Sept-Îles. Sept-Îles is home to about 25 000 white people and about 5000 Innus, most of which live in one of the two reserves, Uashat or Mani-Utenam. Uashat is in the city center; Mani-Utenam is about 15 km outside the city.

Both reserves are made so that they are very easy to avoid (one does not need to go through the reserves unless one has reason to go there). This unfortunately (but also purposely) creates geographical segregation. I would also add that the general attitudes between White and Innu people is that of antagonism and racism.

This situation, despite being quite unfortunate, nevertheless gave rise to a very interesting situation, linguistically speaking. The overwhelming majority of White people speak Quebec French. Most Innus also speak French (except perhaps some older people), but their traditional language, Innu, is alive and well, in the reserves (paradoxically, their isolation has had the effect of ensuring the survival of Innu) but also in (usually White) public spaces, between Innus. It is not only an obvious marker of cultural identity, it is also used as a tool of resistance to White culture, because most White people do not understand it. Many people believe that Innus should speak French; of course, Innus are aware of this, and many choose to speak Innu specifically to resist this effort of assimilation.

However, my main interest is about Innus who speak French. Every young Innu’s language of instruction, in primary school, is French, and most teachers are White, even on the two schools present on the reserve. They have Innu language classes a few times a week.

However, despite being taught Quebec French by Quebecois, most Innus speak a non-standard, unique variety of French. This variety is characterized by various features. The most recognizable feature is probably the accent, but there are also several idioms, grammar features and slang words that are associated with that variety, to the extent that sometimes White people use those features to stereotype Innu French. Unfortunately, many White people perceive this variety of French, especially the accent, as an L2 accent, and believe that Innus speak differently simply because they haven’t successfully acquired French. Thus, it is often used as the basis for racism, or at the very least, othering.

This would need actual research, but to me it feels like that the non-standard variety used by Innus, rather than demonstrating failed acquisition of French, is spoken purposely to index the speaker as a part of a shared Innu cultural identity, even when speaking French, the language of the oppressor but nevertheless a necessary one in order to function in Sept-Îles. This performed identity is not only linked to Innu ethnicity and culture, but also linked geographically (specifically Innus who live on the reserves) and in terms of class (reserves are areas of low socio-economic status). I have this theory because I noticed that some Innus seem to consciously speak more or less standard Quebec French depending on their context and situation. Here are a few examples:

  • In my high school, culturally dominated by Whites but where there was a large population of Innus, most Innus chose to use Innu French, or Innu language when speaking with other Innus.
  • In general, most people you will see on the street speak Innu French, or Innu.
  • Innu police officers, even those working for the SPUM (police service for within the reserve), who are explicitly working against Innus in general, won’t use it as much.
  • Innus who do not live on the reserve tend to not use it as much.
  • Innus who have one White parent tend to not use it as much.

I have found a few examples on YouTube to illustrate my point: The girls speak typical Innu French, with the accent, several specifically intoned words (“là”, “bin”), and also freely code-switch between French and Innu. (Note: this video is part of a channel where videos are all in Innu. The other people interviewed in the video, older people, speak almost exclusively Innu, and so I believe the girls switch to French because they don’t know how to say certain words in Innu). When the Innu women speak French, they also speak in the typical Innu French variety. In the video, you can also see that several Innu elementary school students (at the Innu school) do not understand Innu, and that French is their L1, but still speak the non-standard variety. We can also see that the teachers are White.

Note: In the first two videos, the people speak like I am used to hearing Innus speak. An interview with Mike McKenzie, Uashat mak Mani-Utenam’s council band leader. He has a discernible accent, but his speech is distinctly toned down in terms of non-standard features and sounds mostly like a Quebecois. An interview with Ernest Dominique, a fairly famous painter. He has traveled and held exhibitions all over the world. Once again, he tones down the non-standard features and sounds mostly like a Quebecois.

 Those two last examples are interesting, because they are both quite important figures within the Innu cultural community (the council band leader and an artist who creates art based on Innu tradition) and yet their speech suggests that they are distancing themselves from the community. I suspect that they specifically want to distance themselves from the ‘working-class’ aspect, not only because they are not part of the working class, but perhaps also because ‘working class’ in the case of Innus often suggests, in the minds of White people, drug abuse and general criminal activity.

 Everything above is, of course, anecdotal evidence based on my own experience living in Sept-Îles, but nevertheless generally supports most sociolinguistic trends, as described in Eckert (2012): Innu French seems to be, at least at this very preliminary level of research, a linguistic resource used by Innus to perform a specific kind of identity. It is not, as many White people seem to think, a consequence of incomplete acquisition of French.

 As with many White people’s attitudes towards AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), where some people think Black people speak an inferior version of English with ‘bad grammar’ rather than a non-standard variety, racist attitudes towards First Nations are also enacted through White people’s attitudes towards Innu French.

 I could keep going for much longer but my post is already way too long. Feel free to agree/disagree, comment, ask questions, add to it, etc.

7 thoughts on “Non-standard French in the Uashat mak Mani-Utenam reserve: a case study”

  1. Simon, this is a powerful post.

    “Innu French seems to be…used by Innus to perform a specific kind of identity. It is not, as many White people seem to think, a consequence of incomplete acquisition of French.”

    Wow. Beautifully written.

    I think you might like reading Jane Hill’s linguistic anthropology work on “the everyday language of White racism”, where she focuses on mock Spanish. You have echoes of this in your post (“sometimes White people use those features to stereotype Innu French”).


  2. Simon, this is wonderful. I think you must know Andrea Sterzuk’s 2011 book “The Struggle for Legitimacy”? (Mullitlingual Matters 2011)…but I am throwing it into the mix for other possibly-interested readers. She describes a situation very much like the one in Sept-Iles, but in Saskatoon.


    1. Hi Simon! Hi Mela! And hi Alison! yes, settler colonialism and language variation is a common story in lots of locations, including Saskatchewan. Simon, there are some other good sources that you might draw on if you are writing about this for your class or for your eventual research. Look for writing from Sharla Peltier, Jessica Ball, Lynn Wiltse and Heather Blair in Canada. In Australia, there is writing from Diana Eades and Ian Malcolm. Good luck!


  3. Bonnie Reimer: Vive la différence!

    Thanks for posting your insights on the Innus and the links to the videos. It was very interesting.
    By “white people,” I’m assuming you mean French-speaking Quebecers. Sadly, racism against First Nations, Metis and Inuit does exist and language is only one aspect of it. Canada has a dark history with regards to “assimilation” of its Aboriginal Peoples. On another note, those who perceive the Innus as not having successfully acquired the language seem to have a narrow view of bilingualism. It is perfectly natural for bilingual speakers to code-switch when both parties speak the same languages as often occurs here in Quebec, though more so for French and English.

    You also mentioned language as being a marker of cultural identity for the Innu. This reminds me of an article I read a couple years ago about some Quebecois who purposefully pronounced /ð/ and /θ/ as /d/ and /t/, respectively, to signal their Quebecois identity. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the author.


  4. Hey Simon, Dean here,

    Great Post! I’ve also noticed this effect in English with First Nations speakers. There is often a different cadence, and grammatical structure that is unique to First Nation’s speakers that unfortunately is often perceived as ‘slow’ or ‘stupid’ by speakers of standard varieties of English. This is extremely frustrating but more of a reflection of how First Nations peoples are generally viewed and in fact becomes yet another ‘justification’ for discriminatory attitudes.

    My girlfriend, Klara Du Plessis, is curating a series of essays for ‘The Town Crier’, the blog for ‘The Puritan Magazine’, which is usually more of a literary site. The topic of her series is ‘writing in English form a Multilingual Perspective’, (She is a bilingual Afrikaans/English poet). In it she’s included an essay by Kalina Newmark and her colleagues James Stanford and Nacole Walker, out of Dartmouth College. (Kalina is a member of the Tulita First Nation of Northwest Territories, and Nacole Walker is a member of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North/South Dakota). They’ve been researching English features of Native American and First Nations communities across the US and Canada for their Aboriginal English research project. Through their analysis they’ve found particular patterns and systematic forms of usage, such as the ‘double negative’. In the essay she also provides this chart for reflexive pronouns to show the the systematic use of ‘hisself/theirself’:
    me > my car > my self = myself
    you >your car > your self = yourself
    her > her car > her self = herself
    he > his car > his self = hisself?
    they > their car > their selves = theirselves?
    (Newmark, Stanford & Walker, 2016)

    As we can see hisself and theirselves are actually more logical and orderly than ‘himself’ and ‘themselves’, the ‘standard’ varieties. So why look down on people for using it? Newmark et al. (2016) also looked into the ‘sing-songy’ intonation that is often seen as a stereotypical in indigenous communities. They find that:”there is a pitch pattern on where the stressed syllable has a lower pitch than the unstressed syllable. For example, with a word like Thomas pronounced in this speech style, the first syllable sounds lower than the second syllable. We also found that in this speech style, the end of the sentence is sometimes pronounced a little higher or a little lower than “Standard English” – and sometimes drawn out a little longer. Finally, we also hear rhythmic differences where syllables are pronounced in a more even-paced timing than in ‘Standard English.'”(Newmark, Stanford & Walker, 2016). They find that this style of speech tends to come out more in informal settings, where people feel comfortable relaxing and joking, than in formal ones where many speaker switch to ‘standard’ English styles. They find that though there are many regional distinctions across North America, there is a sense of familiarity with this way of speaking that spans across regions/groups that creates a sense of common identity and camaraderie.

    Needless to say, it’s a fascinating essay, and I can’t sum the whole thing up here in this comment, but I think it speaks to what you were saying about Innu varieties of French, Simon. The essay hasn’t been published yet. (That’s why I can’t provide page numbers, or even a website reference yet!). However, I will notify you when it IS, and provide a link. The series of essays WILL begin to be posted next week, Monday, and there are 13 in total, so there should be a lot of interesting content for us to go through! Here’s the link to the blog:

    Do you see a parallel between the First Nations French Varieties and the English ones described here, Simon?


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