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How one woman is helping keep her Indigenous language alive

Only about 150 people can still speak Moose Cree fluently. But Geraldine Govender is helping keep the northern Ontario dialect alive for present and future generations.

By Al Donato

Geraldine Govender, of Moose Cree First Nation, led a team of linguists and elders to create the dictionary of Moose Cree words. She received an award for Excellence in Conservation from the Ontario Heritage Awards at a Queen's Park ceremony in February, acknowledging her role in spearheading the preservation project.

Moose Cree, or Ililîmowin, is mainly spoken by people living around the southern tip of James Bay. Many of them live on Moose Factory Island, surrounded by the Moose River, about 10 kilometres from Moosonee.

An estimated 150 fluent Moose Cree speakers remain, about four percent of the area's Indigenous population, the Intercontinental Cry reports. The declining number of Indigenous-language speakers in Canada is directly related to the country's past attempts to eradicate culture through the residential school system, where students were punished for speaking Indigenous languages.

Fewer Indigenous language speakers in older generations means fewer people to teach the language to children and grandchildren. Statistics Canada reports that while over 35 percent of First Nations seniors can speak an Indigenous language, only 16 percent of children under 15 can do so.

The first edition of the Moose Cree dictionary was published in 2014 with over 5,000 entries. The 2015 edition almost doubled the number of entries, jumping to 9,300. A third edition is planned for release later this year. An online speaking dictionary has also been made available. Each entry includes the word in English and Moose Cree, with many accompanied by an audio clip of a speaker's pronunciation.

"Moose Cree is an archaic dialect and as such is unique and worthy of strengthening and celebrating," the Wawatay News reports Govender saying.

"It was with heartfelt gratitude and enormous excitement that I saw the people gather in the foyer of the Moose Cree complex during the book launch of the Moose Cree dictionary and again afterwards with the influx of requests for copies of the dictionary. Never had I imagined that this would spark such interest and hope."

The dictionary is just part of local efforts to renew interest and fluency in the dialect, much attributed to Govender and the Moose Factory Community Language Project. The MFCLP has also published a grammar book and children's literature, including a translation of Makeup Mess by Canadian author Robert Munsch.

In a Facebook post, Govender thanked her award nominator Stan Kapashesit, lead linguist Kevin Brousseau, and her elders for "keeping the language alive." Presented by Lt.-Gov Elizabeth Dowdeswell and established by the Ontario Heritage Trust, the annual ceremony recognizes efforts contributing to the province's cultural and natural conservation.


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