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Métis man works to make Michif the NWT's 12th official language

A sweater features sewing that reads "Mamawi" or "together" in Cree and Michif, one of the items that Sanderson gives away on his radio show if listeners send him words in Michif. photo courtesy of Vance Sanderson

Discussions of Indigenous languages in the NWT often leave out Michif for the more familiar languages of Tlicho, South Slavey or Inuvialuktun.

But Vance Sanderson, a Métis linguist in Fort Smith, is working to raise Michif to a new level of prominence.

Historically spoken by Métis peoples across the Prairies and Western Canada, the language combines Cree grammar with mixtures of French and Cree vocabulary. Some dialects combine vocabulary from Dene languages, depending on the location. 

Michif isn’t among the NWT’s nine official Indigenous tongues, despite the language having been spoken in several communities over many decades.

Sanderson hopes Michif can become the territory’s 12th official language.

“I’ve been advocating that for a while now, for the last 10 years,” said Sanderson, who is also a languages manager with the NWT Métis Nation. “Elders have been voicing their concern that the Michif language is not only a Métis language, but is spoken by other Indigenous people within our territory.”

Sanderson grew up speaking Michif, Cree and French. He graduated from the University of Victoria with a degree in linguistics and hopes to eventually earn a PhD so he can teach Michif and Cree.

He acknowledges that getting Michif recognized as an official language is going to be an uphill battle, mainly because of the small number of speakers.

Based on his own research, he estimates there are currently fewer than 200 Michif speakers in the NWT.

If accurate, that gives Michif the lowest number of speakers of any Indigenous language in the NWT, including Inuktitut, which had 207 speakers according to 2019 data from the NWT Bureau of Statistics.

Speak Michif to me

But he does what he can to stimulate interest in Michif and get people learning the language.

Since 2017 he has been running a language program on the radio in Fort Smith, organized in partnership with the NWT Métis Nation.

A sweater features sewing that reads "Mamawi" or "together" in Cree and Michif, one of the items that Sanderson gives away on his Fort Smith radio show if listeners send him words in Michif. photo courtesy of Vance Sanderson

Announcements are made on the show in Cree, Chipewyan and Michif.

“(I’ll give away) promotional items, such as clothing, and you have the language on the clothing and to get the clothing, you have to speak Michif to me,” he said.  

He also helps organize Michif evening classes in Fort Smith and has made his own Michif calendars. dictionaries, posters and children's books.

“Basically, it's looking at material development, and recording our Elders, and documenting and seeing how schools can benefit from those documents,” he said. “And seeing if we can develop strong speakers within our schools and to get the numbers up.”

He plans to launch a podcast that would include interviews with Elders and other speakers of Michif. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic it has been difficult to hold interviews with Elders indoors, and the podcast project has been delayed until the spring.

Tough language to research

Sanderson arrived at 200 speakers through surveys he conducted in Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, Hay River and Enterprise.

“Some of them aren’t even known to Statistics Canada,” Sanderson said. “You have to go into the communities and you have to spend time with certain families. And that's also a difficult task to do because some people don't welcome everybody into their homes.”

Identifying Michif speakers also gets tricky because it exists on a spectrum of mixed languages.

A textbook shows Michif and Cree vocabulary for senses and colours. photo courtesy of Vance Sanderson

“You have people who are fluent in French, and they have a different way of speaking French that could be considered Michif because of their dialect and the way they bend the language and the way they use it, and the way they relate it to Cree or Chipewyan or Slavey,” he said. “They can be more French-influenced, or they can be more Indigenous-languages influenced.”

Since Michif isn’t recognized as official by the GNWT, it’s not included in NWT Bureau of Statistics figures on numbers of language speakers.

A Statistics Canada report from 2016 states there are 1,170 Michif speakers, most of whom are in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The same report said that 5,960 Métis people spoke Cree languages, 1,555 spoke Dene and 685 spoke Anishinabe.

Old idea, new effort

Interest in making Michif an official language goes back almost 30 years.

The 1993/1994 Report of the Languages Commissioner of the NWT recommended that the GNWT "support the research, documentation and analysis of the Michif language in the NWT, to permit a thorough consideration of this language in the context of official languages."

In 2003, the GNWT wrote in its response to the Special Committee on the Review of the Official Languages Act that it agrees “Michif should be researched to determine an appropriate designation for the language.”

It added that the Department of Education, Culture and Employment would conduct that research using Aboriginal Language Initiative funding.

“The focus of the research will be to determine the number of Michif speakers in the NWT before decisions are made regarding the designation of the language,” the report stated.

Last October, former languages commissioner Shannon Gullberg told a standing committee meeting that she’s aware of Sanderson’s efforts to make Michif an official language.

Brenda Gauthier, the current languages commissioner, said if Michif becomes the 12th official language it would demonstrate the dedication and hard work put into its revitalization.

"Whether or not the language is recognized as an official language, this commitment needs to continue not only for the Michif language but all Indigenous languages. We all have a part to play in keeping our official languages active."

Time to reverse the decline

Michael McLeod, MP for the NWT, supports the idea of making Michif an official language.

“There was an opportunity to do it before when the language review happened in the legislative assembly. There was a lot of support for Indigenous languages but Michif was considered a heritage language and didn’t have the same status as others,” he said. “When you don’t have that protection you start to lose it. If there's no funding or support and few speakers, every time an Elder or speaker passes away or moves, the language gets weaker.”

Growing up in a Métis family, Michif was the language of McLeod's childhood home, as it was for many families in Fort Providence at the time.

The Michif dialect in Fort Smith was a mixture of French and Cree, he said. In Fort Resolution, it was a mix of Chipewyan and French. In Fort Providence, it was Dene and French.

“And that applied in Fort Simpson, Behchoko, Fort Resolution and for some families in Hay River and Yellowknife. All the Métis could communicate in that language,” McLeod said.

Even Dene people in Fort Providence could speak Michif decades ago because they learned French in residential school, he added. But he began to notice a shift in Michif usage in the early years of the 21st century.

“In 1999 when I ran for the first election for MLA in the NWT, all the Dene Elders spoke to me in Métis Michif. When I ran again in 2004 there were very few who could still speak it,” he recalled.

He estimates that today only 10 people in Fort Providence can speak Michif.

“A lot of people consider a language to be like a universe. When a word dies, a story also dies. If the Michif language isn’t protected and saved then that whole history could disappear.”

McLeod sees the work of someone like Sanderson as a new opportunity to revitalize Michif.

“If nothing changes, the language will completely disappear in the NWT. Michif is still spoken in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but it's quite a bit different from the dialect we speak. I think it's time to take a look at it again.”

A textbook shows Michif and Cree vocabulary for senses and colours. photo courtesy of Vance Sanderson