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A thirst to learn

Métis Nation of Ontario woman playing the fiddle

Photo: Métis Nation of Ontario

By

France Picotte

Intangible heritage

Published Date: Sep 08, 2017

Recently, the Ontario Heritage Trust sat down with France Picotte, Acting President of the Métis Nation of Ontario, to discuss the connection between language and culture and how that reflects on one’s sense of identity.

“I think if you lose a language, you lose a big part of your culture, because the words and expressions [of a] language – like our Michif language – are not just words. It’s words, but it’s also body language. When you lose that, you lose a big part of your culture. To truly experience your culture, the language of your ancestors reflected in the stories you get from your ancestors is so very important. That’s the connection; it’s a very integral part of who we are. Language isn’t just language. It’s language, culture, history; all that comes to inform it."

When asked how she was taught Michif and how the language is passed down today, Picotte replied, “Michif in Ontario is in a unique situation. Our language was taught from our parents, our grandparents. That’s how the language came down. In Ontario, for a while it really wasn’t cool to be Métis because you were either too Indian, too French or too Catholic. I remember my grandmother saying not to talk about it in public because you’ll be ostracized and they’ll come and take you away. So our language was really restrained to the family.”

“Our language in Ontario wasn’t passed down officially to the next generation. Some families refused to let their children
speak the language. They would send their children to the French school and the children would be laughed at and ridiculed because of the way they spoke. We have generations [who have] lost some of that language, but they remember hearing their parents and grandparents speaking it. When we have a chance to speak it in public they always come to us and say, ‘Oh, I remember. I don’t know the language, but I remember my grandparents speaking that or my parents.’ We have a lot of work to do in order to be able to pass it down.”

Métis Nation of Ontario group walking

Photo: Métis Nation of Ontario

Métis Nation of Ontario dancers

Photo: Métis Nation of Ontario

Continuing with some of the challenges facing the Michif language in Ontario today, Picotte explained that, “the Michif in Ontario is a little different than the Michif spoken in Manitoba (or) Saskatchewan. People want to learn Michif and they don’t realize that the Michif in Ontario is not the same as the one in Manitoba or Saskatchewan. I’m afraid of losing our native language for the sake of the Saskatchewan language. The Michif language as spoken in Ontario is wise, very beautiful, and should be (and is) respected as an Indigenous language.”

Picotte and the Métis Nation of Ontario are studying the Michif language in Ontario and working to record and analyze the many dialects present in Ontario. With a working group of volunteers and a linguist, they are creating little books and recording audio files that can be accessed online. Picotte observed that “there is a thirst to learn it. Our youth want to learn it. Our adults want to learn it. That’s the opportunity we are trying not to miss. That thirst to learn our language is unbelievable. The fact that we are speaking it more and more in public is also going to be very important. The opportunity to use it in public and not to be judged, at least publicly, when we douse it, is awesome.”

She goes on to explain that, “the fear of identifying asMétis is still there. We still have to be careful. We still haveto make sure that our people can publically express theirlanguage and culture in a safe environment. But for the most part I think the pride is there a little bit more. It’s easier to say, ‘Hey, I’m Métis.’”