The Nation had a chance to talk to Clarence Tomatuk about the upcoming Cree Language and Culture Conference. The conference promises to be a milestone for the Crees. It is one of the few unbroken promises from the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement seeing implementation.

Tomatuk, the director of Education Services for the Cree School Board, says this conference is looking at addressing a “living language, the Cree language,” and its future.

It’s all happening November 4, 5 and 6th in Ouje-Bougoumou. The CSB will be hosting Elders, Cree entities, Band Council members, leaders, youth and Cree teachers. It is a forum where they’ll discuss Cree language and culture.

Tomatuk is also a member of the steering committee organizing the conference. Members include Elder Winnie Mianscum, youth Harry Bosum, school commissioner Reggie Neeposh, Cree Program Coordinator Daisy Herodier, Kenny Mianscum from the Cree Cultural Institute, Anna Bosum of a local band Cree cultural department, Luke MacLeod, the coordinator for the conference, and Louise Shecapio.

Tomatuk says the CSB looked for a cross section of people. They wants to make sure everyone in the Cree world, whether it be leadership, entities, Elders, youth or education workers, would have a chance to say what the future of the Cree language and culture would be.

During this time all schools will be closed. Teachers will be taking pedagogical days. Days that they study, some for self-improvement in their fields, and yet others, Cree, who are looking at the future of the Cree Nation itself.

The Nation: When did the CSB come up with the idea to do a conference on these issues?

Clarence Tomatuk: It started back in a meeting in March 1996, just before the spring goose hunt. It was a presentation given by on the progress of Cree as a Language of Instruction and related issues.

At that point it was stressed there should be a moment in time where we step back and look forward to what we can do to improve our efforts in the policy of Cree as a Language of Instruction. To reflect on what’s been done since certain decisions have been made from even as far back as when the CSB was created.

But the crucial moment was the decision by a joint meeting of the chiefs and the school commissioners on Dec. 6, 1988.

There were principles by the leadership where it was said that Cree as a Language of Instruction needed to be implemented into the schools.

Will you be looking back at what has been done? What will be the interesting focus of the conference?

I think the main focus of the conference is to look at our culture and language that’s being implemented in our schools. At this point, we also have to see what people can do outside of our schools, the com-munities, our leaders, the Elders, in maintaining Cree as a living language and a living way of life. We are going to look at Cree at the local level, the way it’s being taught in our schools and the role that the leadership and the entities created under the JBNQA have in maintaining our language in the workplace. We will be looking at the Cree language as a surviving and living language in Canada.

Cree is one of the languages that is expected to survive into the next century, so I guess one of the purposes of this conference is to safeguard that?

I think that’s the main focus. To keep our language alive in our school system and to get equal support within the communities. Everyone has a part to play in safeguarding our language as well as protecting it and our culture. Culture is an important aspect. Culture and language I believe come together in the Cree world. We have to take that with us into the future.

I’ve heard some discussions have been on standardizing the written language. It seems to me that there would be some problems with this. Different dialects and that sort of thing would play a part in this. How would the conference handle this?

Well, we are hoping at this conference we would have the support for not a standard but a consistent writing system that blends with the way we speak and express things. We would look at the way it could adapt itself eventually to become a standard. We have to take things step by step but I think we are at the point now where we need to start writing our language to show to our children, to show the community and others that our language can be written.

Although our tradition has been oral, we need in the future to find a writing system that is consistent and that everybody understands. It takes education to do that and we can’t do it overnight. It takes information to be provided to people, especially the parents.

I think some have to start learning about the writing system. The children have been having problems with parent support when doing homework. We need to work to change this.

It’s worked in different places up North but it took a long time. I’ve heard about the results in such places a Greenland, Alaska and the Northwest Territories. They have been active in maintaining one writing system. They are using that and have been communicating with that. This is something we have to think about.

You’ll have a number of people coming to this conference. What kind of people do you expect?

We’re hoping to have all Cree teachers who have been teaching or are in training, school committee members, at least six people from each community — two from the Band Council, two youth and two Elders – and all other educational staff at the local level who understand and speak the Cree language, those who are involved with Cree as a Language of Instruction implementation are invited to the conference.

We have keynote speakers from our own people as well as a Cree from Saskatchewan, who studied the loss of language and culture. She will be the first keynote speaker and will be talking about what the loss of language and culture means to Native people. This lady has been working 20 years in the development of native language, the curriculum and a study of the languages themselves and how to keep them alive.

Has this loss been experienced by the Crees out west?

It’s been a big problem out west where some Native groups have been experiencing those losses. Some of it results from the greater numbers of people spending time in the cities rather than the North. We’re talking thousands in the cities and their languages aren’t being reinforced in the schools. There aren’t many examples of Native control over education where their language is first. I think they’re starting to come around to the fact that it’s important to maintain and protect your language. These language issues are surfacing.

At the school board, I believe we’re one of the best examples of how we can integrate our language in our school system. We are teaching our children our language and values, our culture. The CSB and the Council of Commissioners committed to Cree as a Language of Instruction in the early days. It was very difficult in the beginning when that idea came to implement Cree as a Language of Instruction in the schools.

I’ll give you some background on Cree issue here at the CSB. In 1978 we took control of Cree education. It gave the Crees the power to control their own education. This was the start of the CSB. It is the instrument by which education is provided.

Wemindji, at this time, was the only school which taught Cree at the pre-school level. The curriculum was developed by Lucy Salt and Magdalene Gautier in 1981. The material they designed was presented to the CSB and teachers piloted this package in 1981. School committees have to approve anything before it can be used in the schools. In the early days, in the early 1980s, parents went against the decision to use Cree as the Language of Instruction. I believe it was because they didn’t believe there was enough material and there weren’t enough teachers trained or the facilities they needed weren’t in place to give that program credibility. They didn’t think that program would work.

In 1988, the councilors and chiefs, if you’ll remember, passed a resolution to teach Cree as a Language of Instruction. That’s one of the principles that identified the direction of Cree education. One of the main points coming out of this was to teach Cree in our schools and to improve the standard of Cree without losing the standard of education that the MEQ offers in French and English. We had to be at the same standard.

It required a lot of planning and effort. Teachers needed training. Material needed to be developed. Writing system had to be upgraded because the older generation only knew the syllabics of when it came to reading the Bible or singing hymns in the English Protestant text that were written by John Horten and ministers at the time. So there was a writing system more geared to the Anglican readings or the Catholic.

In 1991 to ’92, there were two teachers hired to develop Cree Grade One material. A curriculum guide was developed. We had all the materials to accompany and compliment the Cree Grade One guide. We have material that was developed in the Circle Programs. There are things in the Circle Programs like storybooks, songbook, words about the circle language, arts, the math book was also adopted.

In the fall of ’93 the CLIP (Cree as a Language of Instruction Program) was piloted in Chisasibi and Waskaganish. In 93-94 the Cree Grade Two was developed and piloted in ’94 in those communities.

From there, it was up to each community to decide the rate of how they would implement or introduce Cree as a Language of Instruction in their schools. Today, all the nine schools except Ouje-Bougoumou have begun implementation of Grade One.

I’m wondering if you plan to extend Cree as a Language of Instruction in the upper grades and how you’ll determine the criteria for new materials? Is this something that you’ll look for at the conference?

I think that those areas, that direction, we need from the conference. We need to know where we want to go and what needs to be done. We want to reflect what’s happened in the past and where are now and where we want to go in our language. The council has a mandate to study and research to implement Cree as a Language of Instruction. What we have and what we are developing. We need to know where we are and where we are going. It’s part of the mandate of Education Services to look at and evaluate the present program.

The present program is well-received by the parents and grandparents. The kids want more. We can’t stop at Grade Three.

There’s the possibility of extending it up to Grades Four, Five and Six in the future after 1999. A lot of it will result in what comes out of this conference. The consultations and developments will see how far we can go. I think the interest is there to keep our language alive into the future for the younger generations.

So this will be a look at the options for the Cree?

What we need is an ongoing development. Revisions of the present programs. Making Adoptingand making additional changes as we go on to improve the programs. We need to develop and produce reading materials for the children. It’s Cree literature. We need to develop the Eastern Cree language system.

I won’t say a standard but a consistent writing system that respects each others’ dialects, and we need to provide training to our teachers. They will be the ones to implement Cree as a Language of Instruction. All of this we can’t do alone. We all have to work together.

The language in the workplace and the language in the school -we have to look at this as an official language in the North. It must be alive and validated in written and oral language.

So what is the aim of the whole conference in a nutshell?

The aim is to get people talking about our language, the Cree language. To give us, the Cree School Board, direction and advice on where we should be going. All input is important for future generations, the future youth.