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Organization works to save Aboriginal languages

Our language isn’t just the words we speak. It’s a key part of our cultural identity.

When a group from various First Nations communities throughout Manitoba realized their Aboriginal languages were in danger, they decided to do something to save them.

The Native Education Concerns Group was formed in 1978. It was incorporated as the Manitoba Association for Native Languages in 1985. Today, the non-profit charity is called Aboriginal Languages of Manitoba (ALM).

ALM provides language classes in Cree and Ojibwe, along with translation, transcription, and interpretive services in Cree, Ojibwe, Dakota, Dene, Michif, Inuktituq, and Oji-Cree.

“It was started by seven or eight people who decided they needed to do something to preserve their first languages. They had board representatives for each language,” recalls Carol Beaulieu, ALM consultant and former director. “They realized their children were going to school in Winnipeg, and their languages weren’t being taught in the schools here. That was the main reason behind it, but it manifested into something bigger.”

The group began to create and compile written, audio and video records for each language. This is something they still do today.

“The idea is that if we ever lost our language verbally, we’d have something written down,” Beaulieu explains. “We’re preserving the languages in any way possible. Technology has helped in the preservation of language.”

She says that one of the most difficult parts of ALM’s mission is finding the right people to help with each language.

“One of the things people don’t understand is that few people know how to translate, interpret and write—usually that’s three different people. It’s a rare talent,” she says. “As our populations age, the importance of preserving the languages and recording them increases.”

The language classes are held only in Winnipeg, but anyone living in Manitoba can access ALM’s information and resources.

“The (popularity of our classes) ebbs and flows. Some years there are a lot of people interested,” says Beaulieu. “A lot of it has to do with identity. Language and identity go hand in hand. People have times in their lives when they want to reconnect, and speaking the language is one way of reconnecting.”

Universities and high schools that offer First Nations language programs in Manitoba use the resources ALM created. The organization has the ultimate goal of developing, promoting and implementing a standardized writing system for each of the seven languages.

“The languages used to be oral. They weren’t written so much, and when people started writing, they wrote everything down phonetically,” Kennedy explains. “Our goal is to eventually standardize these languages into one writing system, which will make them easier to learn.”

ALM offers Cree and Ojibwe language classes in the spring and fall, depending upon demand.

Beaulieu added that she never loses sight of how important preserving the languages is.

“It’s who we are and where we come from. It’s our cultural identity. We have difficulty communicating with one another right now, even with all this technology at our fingertips,” she says. “We’ll continue to preserve as many languages as we can for as long as we can.”

– J.H. MONCRIEFF, MyToba.ca

J.H. Moncrieff is a Winnipeg journalist. Her articles have appeared in The Globe & Mail, Chatelaine, FLARE, WestJet magazine, Winnipeg Women, and the Winnipeg Free Press. She blogs about unsolved mysteries, the supernatural, haunted places, and spooky true stories at www.jhmoncrieff.com/blog.
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