Current Problems

Language and Culture (13-17)

Cree School Board takes aim at language loss

October 25, 2023

Mentorship initiative just part of larger effort to save a language at risk

A group of young Cree students stand in a line at the front of their grade one classroom in northern Quebec. With them are the chairperson of the Cree School Board and the director general.
Cree School Board chairperson Sarah Pash, right, and director general Caroline Mark, 2nd right, visit the classroom of some of the youngest Cree students in northern Quebec. (Cree School Board)

NationTalk: CBC News – It was a wake-up call to many about the health of the Cree language.

Grade 2 students in northern Quebec were being assessed on their Cree language skills as part of a larger language assessment currently ongoing for the Cree School Board.  “Grade 2 is where it really shook everybody … There was practically no Cree speaking there. They were mainly speaking in English,” said Angela Gates, who is the director of the Iiyiyiuiyihtiwin Cree Culture Research & Development department at the Cree School Board.

“One of the students said, ‘I don’t speak Cree, I am English.'”

The Cree language assessment is also evaluating the health of the Cree language in Grade 6 and secondary five students in all of the Quebec Cree communities.  

And while the assessment is still ongoing, the results with the youngest of students in the communities of Wemindji and Chisasibi, Que., were worrisome enough that officials have put in place a new program in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten to try to get at what’s interfering with language learning.

It is part of a much larger effort at the board to help bolster language acquisition and retention.

Language experts coming out of retirement

The new program is called the Cree Language Mentorship Initiative and it has been in the classroom since September, officials say.

A Cree woman wearing glasses wears a white sweater with a design of Indigenous flowers smiles at the camera in her office.
Angela Gates is the director of Iiyiyiuiyihtiwin Cree Culture Research & Development, a new department at the Cree School Board. (Cree School Board)

The board has hired 20 Cree language experts as mentors, many of them retired teachers with decades of experience. “We reached out to our retirees and the majority of them were more than happy to come back and help,” said Gates.

Each mentor will work with a maximum of two current Cree language teachers, working as a team to come up with lessons, plans, resources and strategies to prioritize oral language acquisition with the youngest of Cree students.

The goal is to eventually expand the program across all levels and to have each mentor — with their different skill sets  — work with teachers across the board.  “[The mentors] really felt the importance of it,” Gates said, adding they will work with about 37 current Cree language teachers across Eeyou Istchee, the traditional name for the Cree territory in Quebec.

A period of ‘language shift’ to endangered

The data coming out of the language assessment shows that East Cree, which is spoken in the Cree communities of Quebec, is in a worrisome decline, according to Cree School Board chairperson, Sarah Pash.   “We really are in a period of language shift and when [there] is a period of language shift, it really is endangered,” said Pash. 

“It means that the intergenerational continuity of the language needs to have urgent support.”

A group of Cree students sit at their desks in a classroom in northern Quebec.
The Cree School Board is prioritizing language and culture acquisition, but says efforts need support across the nation. ‘We can’t do this alone,’ said board chairperson Sarah Pash. (Cree School Board)

The Cree Language Mentorship Initiative is one part of a much larger effort by the board to combat language loss, said Pash. 

Other efforts include creating a bank of Cree language resources for schools, the creation of an elder’s circle in each community for schools to draw upon, and the hiring of culture and language animators in each of the schools.

The creation of the Iiyiyiuiyihtiwin Cree Culture Research & Development department at the Cree School Board is also part of those efforts. Its mandate is to act as a steward of Cree language and culture and to set standards for Cree culture and Cree language taught within the schools.

The board has also created and sent home language kits to parents that include reading and vocabulary development tools.  There are also plans to create a space in Gatineau, Que., for Cree cultural activities to help students who are in the south for post-secondary studies maintain or improve their language skills, said Pash. 

Worry, but now also hope 

Pash added that all parts of the Cree nation are being called upon to join the effort.  “We can’t do this alone. There are many partners that we do need to work with within the nation,” said Pash, adding the board has already presented results from the language assessment to the Cree nation grand chief, and head of the Cree health board, and have asked for collaboration from the daycare system and Cree Language Commission. 

The Cree language assessment also showed encouraging signs of an attachment to the Cree language and Cree culture among secondary five students, said Pash. “[They] said they wanted to speak more Cree and that they really valued the Cree language and they valued Cree culture,” said Pash.

A small group of young Cree high school students sit around a table with piles of sphagnum moss, learning its traditional uses.
A small group of Cree students sit around a table with piles of sphagnum moss, learning its traditional uses.(Cree School Board)

One of the language experts who has come out of retirement is Mary Bear. She worked for many years as coordinator of the McGill language courses for the Cree School Board and as a language consultant and other roles at the board. 

“I think it’s important that we keep our language alive. I know we have teachers that teach it, but they need our support,” said Bear, adding that after years of worry about the loss of the Cree language, she is finally feeling hope. “I was very worried, but now I think … [that at] the Cree School Board level there seems to be more importance on keeping our language and culture.

“We have to pass that knowledge down that was passed to us from our parents to our children and grandchildren. And I think it’s very important,” said Bear.

She called upon parents to really join the efforts to bolster the Cree language. 

“[Don’t] allow children to play with those electronic devices that much, and also TV, but spend more time with visiting or playing outside or being out on the land, because that’s where our language is — out on the land. We have to do our part to pass on the knowledge to them in order for them to pass it on to their children,” said Bear. 


Susan Bell

Susan Bell has worked with CBC News since 1997 as a journalist, writer-broadcaster, radio host and producer. She has been with CBC North since 2009, most recently as a digital producer with the Cree unit in Montreal.

With files from Cheryl Wapachee