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Preserving Cree language will take broad approach: Abraham Jolly

Language Forum

While Cree language and culture has long been a focus for the Cree School Board, it is becoming increasingly clear that its preservation requires partnership. 

That’s the message delivered by the Director General of the Cree School Board at the Michiminihtaau Chitayimuwininuu Eeyou Istchee Language Engagement Session held at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou March 13 to 15, 2018.

Speaking to a group of about 100 Cree elders, educators and leaders, Abraham Jolly explained how many first thought that the Cree School Board would be the sole entity to promote and preserve Cree language.

“Our various challenges have shown that we can only contribute to teaching the language,” he said.

“Research shows that literacy in two languages requires support from not just the school, but also the community and society.”Jolly gave an overview of Cree language instruction over the years, from the first decade of the school board’s existence (1978-1988) when English and French were the languages of instruction. In 1988, a joint resolution was signed by the school board and what is now the Cree Nation Government to make Cree the language of instruction.

“At that time, we were largely unsure as to what impact this would have on students’ learning outcomes,” Jolly said.

To support language preservation, the school board developed a curriculum for Cree language instruction (CLIP) with the goal of supporting students to graduate from secondary school using Cree as the language of instruction.

Challenges arose, specifically, lack of a framework to assist students to transition from Cree to English or French instruction. In 2008, it was evident that Cree students were failing to learn to read, and because of this, they were failing to succeed in school.

Since that time, we have refocused, Jolly explained, adding that the school board has developed its understanding of bilingual models of education and the process by which children learn language. The Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (GVC) addresses these challenges with a standardized curriculum and learning targets aligned with Cree language and culture, as well as the Quebec education ministry.

“Research shows that literacy in two languages requires support from not just the school, but also the community and society,” Jolly said.

The message is not new, he added. Even as early as 1988, when the James Bay Cree Language Commission Study reported on a survey on the future of the Cree language, it was clear that the preservation of language and culture could not be assigned exclusively to schools.

“It will only be by all of us working together – chiyaanuu – that we will devise programs that hit the target.”Cree Nation Grand Chief Abel Bosum reiterated the urgency to focus on cultural and language preservation.

“With our relatively small population of 20,000 people, in a context in which we are surrounded by French and English, we have our work cut out for us. The situation requires that we mount an ambitious and aggressive campaign to ensure the continuity of our Cree language,” he said.

He encouraged turning to our elders, finding creative ways to engage them in the mission of preserving and promoting the Cree language. He said doing so has an added benefit of bridging the gap between contemporary Cree culture and traditional Cree culture.

“It will only be by all of us working together – chiyaanuu – that we will devise programs that hit the target and result in a vibrant tradition of Cree language being passed down from generation to generation,” Bosum added in a Facebook post following the conference.

The Cree School Board is working hard to continuously improve the cultural relevance of its programs and services, Jolly added. The goal at this stage in the school board's history is to help our next generation develop competencies that include their cultural knowledge.