A parent in Chisasibi recently wrote an open letter asking why the Cree School Board reduced the amount of Cree taught to her children. She wanted to know why the CSB “replaced” the Cree Language of Instruction Program (CLIP) with a formula of 50% Cree and 50% in French and/or English. Why, she asked, didn’t anyone talk to her and other parents first?
Good questions. Here’s why.
Every Indigenous language in the world is in danger of disappearing. Some Cree say “so what,” and assume their language will never be one of them. But the odds are getting worse.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “Approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century and they continue to disappear at a rate of one language every two weeks. Up to 90 per cent of the world’s languages are likely to disappear before the end of this century if current trends are allowed to continue.”
When a language becomes extinct, the collective wisdom, knowledge, customs, and cultural identity of a people are lost forever. UNESCO says the preservation of Indigenous languages such as Cree is a “matter of great urgency.” We agree. We believe most parents do too.
We thought this had been settled a long time ago. Fifty years ago, Cree elders said they were concerned about the state of our language. They complained that younger Cree were mangling the language. Their complaints coincided with a growing demand from parents to teach Cree to their children.
UNESCO said children learned best when they had a solid foundation in their own language. Secure in their own culture and identity, children did better in school and could learn other languages later.
Cree Elders and parents knew this instinctively. They wanted Cree in their schools. But they needed qualified teachers. They didn’t have teaching materials, books and manuals. They didn’t know how they could use Cree to teach math and science. They needed to design new courses and curricula. Would they use Cree in pre-school and kindergarten?
John Murdoch, a school principal in Waskaganish, didn’t have any teaching materials. So he made them. In 1973, he started the Cree Way Project. Then the CSB sent teachers to Manitou Community College at La Macaza to learn how to use Cree as the language of instruction and to design courses. Meanwhile, the board had to ensure that everything met provincial standards as well as parental expectations.
The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement brought construction crews that built roads, airfields and new communities. This brought training opportunities and jobs. It became important to learn French as well as English. Community consultations, meetings, studies — all pointed to the need for a long-range education policy on language. This led to the creation of the Cree Language of Instruction Program (CLIP).
CLIP never satisfied everyone. Communities that practiced more traditional lifestyles wanted more Cree taught at an earlier age and for longer than communities with less traditional lifestyles. Some communities felt French and English should be taught in the early grades while others wanted Cree immersion. Priorities kept changing.
Which is why we believe the CSB is wrong to change the policy. CLIP was developed with our grandchildren’s grandchildren in mind. Long-term policies, especially those intended to preserve our language, our culture and our ways of life for future generations, should never be sacrificed because of short-term thinking.