A group of Yellowknife students are building cultural bridges by learning Tlicho from elder-mentors.
Fourteen students and 10 elders gathered at the College Nordique Jan. 13 for the introductory session of the latest Tlicho 1 beginner’s course.
Learners paired up – some in groups of three – with elders based on activities through which they want to learn the Tlicho language.
College Nordique has offered Tlicho courses for a few years but the mentoring program only began last September.
“Before we offered the elders program, our Tlicho students often mentioned that they didn’t have the confidence to practice with Indigenous people outside the classroom, nor the opportunity,” as Josée Clermont, executive director of College Nordique told Yellowknifer.
“This program offers them more support, the opportunity to develop not only their language skills, but a relationship with a Dené person, perhaps make a new friend and learn their culture.”
Its first semester ran until the end of December and the second will wrap up at the end of March, with the partners meeting for at least one hour-long session per week.
A classroom portion of the course comprises a two-hour weekly lesson with Tlicho teacher Georgina Frankie focusing on vocabulary and basic conversation. A Tlicho 2 course, for more advanced learners is also part of the second semester.
Attendees at the first session gave self-introductions and expressed their expectations for the mentorship program.
The elders said they joined the mentorship scheme to share their language and culture with learners. Students’ motivations for learning Tlicho ran the gamut from professional reasons like wanting to know physical and medical vocabulary to assist in their work, to lighter reasons like seeking to master Tlicho numbers through bingo or the terminology used in filleting fish.
Elder Jonas Sangris from Dettah told the meeting that after working for years in politics he was finished with the stress of that world and wants to focus on sharing his culture.
Harriet Paul, an elder who joined a group with Yanick D’Aigle and Angélique Ruzindana, said that her role as a mentor is a natural progression of many years of working in Tlicho.
“I was a court interpreter. I worked at CBC in Tlicho for 28 years as a broadcaster and host. I went to air in the morning and did the regional news and the weather and community announcements and international news. I did daily interviews and old time stories.”
This is her first time joining the program and she said her group will meet two or three times a week.
“I like talking and teaching. I’m going to do bannock and cinnamon buns and do it all in Tlicho.”
For Caroline Lafontaine, who works in Yellowknife with the Department of Canadian Heritage, learning the language comes down to educating herself about the people of this region.
“I’ve been living here on Dene land for 16 years and going on 17. The Tlicho course is part of the process of getting closer and learning and getting rid of prejudices. I don’t know if I’m going to speak it but it brings me an understanding of where people are coming from. The language has a whole way of looking at life. I want to see through their eyes how they look at the world. You’re not Dene but you become Dene. It rubs on you.”
One of Lafontaine’s specific goals of the course is learning how to make a traditional Dene dress for ceremonies.
The program’s first semester proved successful because it was as much about language as learning specific activities, said mentorship coordinator Lila Erasmus.
“The elders were wonderful in teaching the students. One of the elders took their students out snaring on the land and ice fishing. Other students made uppers and beaded card holders. Some of them did dry fish, learning how to fillet fish and I think some did dry meat also. Some of them also did card games in Tlicho.”
Erasmus explained that the deeper value of the program is less tangible.
“It allows the racism and prejudice to fall off the table because there’s no room for it after that. Once you have that understanding of each other and where you’re coming from, understanding of the language, understanding of the legends, understanding of the land it really allows you to embrace all of that in a good way. That’s the best part of it.”
College Nordique is sponsoring the course through a $25,000 grant from the federal New Horizons for Seniors Program. The funding will pay the instructors and elders for their time.
Official numbers on language proficiency vary, but a total of 2,235 people over the age of 15 have the ability to converse in Tlicho across the territory, according to a NWT Bureau of Statistics report from 2014, the most recent year for that data. That report showed an upward trend for Tlicho ability, with 1,511 people having conversational ability in 1989 and 2,167 in 2004.