For my last blog, I’d like to discuss an endangered language, specifically Michif, which is an even mixture of Plains Cree and Canadian French. The verbs are Cree and the nouns are French. This language is rather unique as it a true mixed language spoken by descendants of mostly French fur traders and Cree women in North America. Eventually, this community became know as the Métis. Most Métis were found in the Red River settlement, now known as Winnipeg though there were scattered communities across the Prairies and in North Dakota. Considering the fur trade was popular in the 1700s and 1800s, the language is rather young. Moreover, it is thought that there were never over 1000 speakers of Michif (Bakker, 1997).
I’m very interested in Michif because it was my grandmother’s maternal language. Unfortunately, I never recognized it as a distinct language till after she died. I used to hear her speak it, but I thought she was code-switching between French and Cree since was born on a reserve and attended a residential school run by the Grey Nuns (les Soeurs Grises), where she learned French. In fact, Michif was her L1, French her L2 and English her L3. Her own children, who were educated in English, did not speak the language and seemed rather embarrassed when she did so in public. Looking back at my childhood, I think of Michif as a rather secret language spoken by Métis grandparents or very old people. I went to grade school in a predominantly French and Métis community in Winnipeg, where most Métis identified themselves as French Canadian, which was not surprising as unlike today Louis Riel was considered more of a rebel than a hero. Also, there was some stigmatization attached to being part First Nations, “Indian” at the time. As a result, Michif was not often passed on to younger generations.
Another reason for the decline of Michif relates to educational policies in Manitoba. In the early 20th century, instruction in public schools had to be in English only. Part of the reason was likely because of the influx of Eastern Europeans to the province and the government didn’t know how or didn’t want to deal with these languages in the public school system. It wasn’t until 1967 that the laws were relaxed for Francophones, who were allowed to be educated half a day in French. Now as far as I know, French and English are the languages of instruction in public schools though other aboriginal languages such as Cree and Ojibwe are offered as part of the curriculum in some schools, but not Michif.
As Michif is a low language, Michif speakers were and are multilingual. Most speak French, English or another aboriginal language. According to Statistics Canada (2011), 640 Métis reported having Michif as a mother tongue and 940 reported being able to speak it well enough to conduct a conversation. Though this is a dying language, the number of speakers has not declined considerably, which is surprising considering how small and spread out the communities are now. Even though I’d hate to see the language die, I’m not sure that it is feasible for the government to pour funds into revitalizing a language with so few speakers. Maybe it’s the responsibility of the Métis communities themselves to take the initiative to preserve the language. What do you think? Who is responsible for revitalizing or preserving minority, aboriginal or heritage languages?
Bakker, P. (1997). A language of our own: The genesis of Michif, the mixed Cree-French language of the Canadian Métis. New York: Oxford University Press.
Statistics Canada. (2011). Aboriginal peoples. Retrieved from https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/as-sa/index-eng.cfm?TABID=1.