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Preserving the Innu language

Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie (L), and Dr. Barbara Burnaby

Since the time of Confederation, the services provided to Labrador’s Innu have been governed provincially rather than under the federal Department of Indian Affairs. Now the two Innu communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshu are seeking reserve status in order to gain more direct control over their education system, along with other services like health care and social services.

Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie, a professor in the Department of Linguistics, has been working with Innu people to produce linguistic tools and reference documents in the Innu language, Innu-aimun, for use in a self-governed school system. “The research that I do is intimately connected with community needs,” said Dr. MacKenzie.

Currently the Innu children are under the Labrador School System. When Innu children begin school they speak Innu, but are expected to learn English. Ideally, the community would like to use Innu-aimun as the language of instruction, so that they learn school skills and a second language through the medium of their own language. This model has been successful in neighbouring Cree communities in Quebec.

While aboriginal populations in Canada have the highest birth rate, MacKenzie said that Aboriginal and minority languages around the world are under serious pressure and are disappearing at an alarming rate.

“The Innu of Labrador are determined that this will not happen to their language. The diagnostic is, do the children speak the language, are they taught it at home? The Innu of Labrador are very fortunate that they have been able to maintain and teach their children the language.”

Dr. Barbara Burnaby, Education, has been working with the Innu Education Authority and was appointed an external member on their advisory monitoring group. She feels Dr. MacKenzie’s research is critical for the development of the Innu school system. “I wouldn’t consider doing this without the kind of background work Marguerite has been doing for years from a linguistic perspective,” explained Dr. Burnaby. “People in the community are very excited now about taking over control and getting the opportunity to do some things the way they think would be valuable and having more community involvement in the school system.”

Documents of the written form of the Innu language exist from the time when the missionaries first arrived in Labrador in the 1600s. “The written form of language has not been used the same way as for European languages,” explained Dr. MacKenzie. “It is now considered to be a useful tool for language maintenance.”

Dr. MacKenzie is currently working with Dr. Sandra Clarke, Linguistics, on a revision of a lesson book in the language. They are also planning to produce a CD with sound files, to aid those wishing to learn the language. Dr. MacKenzie has also been working for a number of years on compiling a Labrador Innu dictionary to codify the spelling system; the project has been recently broadened to include combining it with the larger Quebec Innu dictionary, with English and French translations. Dr. Clarke has also written a grammar book of the Sheshatshu Innu language.

“There are many dialects of the Innu language, two in Labrador and three in Quebec. Over the last 20 years there have been efforts to provide a writing system, an orthography, which will span all the dialects, so that there is now a common spelling of words in place,” said Dr. MacKenzie.

The common spelling came out of Quebec and is the result of a long series of workshops where people look at the different linguistic factors and come to a compromise on dozens of decisions. The common spelling has yet to be fully accepted in Labrador.

“It is not just the things such as the dictionary that come out of this research, but it is also the results of these workshops that are important. The results include training people and giving them opportunities to see how literacy can be important to them,” said Dr. Burnaby.

There is a lot of work ahead in the development of textbooks for Innu children. “Our experience with the Cree has been that training people in literacy and putting literacy in their own language in the schools is a serious economic advantage to the community, proving jobs for local people in the school and curriculum creators, etc.,” said Dr. MacKenzie.

“We would like to see people realizing that by becoming literate in their language they have a career path, can stay in their community and have a sense of pride in their heritage."

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