In her final year as principal at George Fitton School, Gail McDonald applied for a federal grant to offer Indigenous language instruction in her school.
The school learned it would receive $68,000 in August.
"Before we wrote the grant (proposal), we surveyed our families to see which Indigenous language is the most popular first step," said vice-principal Sherry Baker.
"Michif came out on top."
Michif uses Cree verb phrases and French noun phrases and is the language used by Métis, who are descendants of First Nations women and European men who worked in the fur trade. According to the Louis Riel Institute, fewer than 1,000 people speak Michif today.
Of 480 students at the school, 40 per cent are Indigenous, and principal Brad Twordik said that places the school in the No. 1 or 2 spot in terms of Indigenous population in Brandon schools.
Baker said she assumes parents made their survey choice according to their own backgrounds.
Kindergarten and Grade 1 students are learning basic Michif from Métis elder Verna DeMontigny, and every second lunch hour students in grades 4 to 8 can also learn it, along with beading, finger weaving and general knowledge of Métis culture.
Roughly a dozen students participate.
Jerilynn Wood implements the Building Student Success with Indigenous Parents Program at George Fitton and participates in the language programming. Métis herself, she has been teaching herself Michif for two years.
"I’ve got the French part. The Cree is a little more difficult, learning the gender differences. I thought I had it until Miss Verna told me I was all out of context. I’m catching it now that I have an actual teacher," Wood said.
The students are responding well and enjoying the lessons.
"They’re soaking it up," she said.
This past Monday, students from the school performed at a Brandon School Division board of trustees meeting, where board members were delighted by the performance of two songs: "Taanshi (Hello)" and "Ma famii (My Family)."
"The students who sang the songs in Michif were such a diverse group of learners. It was beautiful," Baker said.
"Their family members filled the gallery. It showed the support we do have from our families."
Raised in foster care, a child of the Sixties Scoop, Cree trustee Delvina Kejick lost her language at a young age. Witnessing the young students resonated deeply.
"I believe that language is the basis of one’s culture and gives us a stronger sense of our identity, our ancestors, a renewed future and hope for actual acts of reconciliation," she said.
"My whole being has and continues to long deeply for my language, and it’s exciting to see and hear of many learning much earlier. They will be stronger down the road. I look forward to the implementation of Indigenous languages in school and curriculum. We have it happening in high school and that’s important, but starting as early as possible is even better."
The grant the school received — Canadian Heritage’s Indigenous Languages Component (formerly known as the Aboriginal Languages Initiative) — is for this school year only, but the proposal included the provision for DeMontigny to pass on some basic teaching skills.
"We’re hoping to explore other ways of doing it (including Indigenous language instruction). Part of the grant is for Mrs. DeMontigny to provide some learning tools for others to use, so others may access it as well," Twordik said.
Staff in Wood’s position at other schools are learning from DeMontigny as well to build skills across the school division.
"We’re trying to make a sustainable plan," Twordik said, adding it’s not just about the language but about the culture, as well.
He hopes the school might be able to continue inviting DeMontigny to the school, even if less often.
"Our Ks and our 1s love to see her walk into the room. They get pretty excited when she’s there," he said.
This week is Métis week at the school. Students will jig to the strains of fiddles, and learn even more about the culture through storytelling.
The Brandon School Division has offered Cree, Michif, Dakota and Anishinaabe at its four high schools. Cree is currently being taught at Crocus Plains for semester two.
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.