Michif language is at the heart of what makes Westmount Community School

Column: 
September 13, 2017

Westmount Commnity School Angie Caron shares a lighter moment with colleagues Chandrelle Marshall (left) and Faye Maurice as their shared commitment to the Michif culture permeates the school.

Immersing students and staff alike in the nuances of the Michif language is by no means the latest new initiative at Saskatoon’s Westmount Community School. As certain as one can be about anything in today’s public education landscape, this focus is here to stay.

It is, after all, not only an effort to have the students connect with their previously overlooked heritage, but also as principal Angie Caron succinctly characterized it, “the Michif language is born of this land and it is therefore important that it be taught here, and it is the language of our people.”

The focus on Michif as a language of instruction for students at Westmount, home of Saskatoon Public Schools Métis cultural program, is a continuation of the work started in 2012 under the guidance of former principal Nicola Bishop-Yong at this venerable PreK-8 school.

Sitting down and trying to madly scribble down the words of Caron and fellow Métis educators Chandrelle Marshall and Faye Maurice confirms the emotional attachment to not only maintaining the program but also continuing to grow it. The program is integral to the school and to the Westmount community itself.

“In order for the language and the culture to live, this has to be a journey for all of us. It’s not just about what we are teaching in the school but outside the school as well, because language is culture. This is our identity and it’s the only way we can tell our stories in a truly authentic way because we are Michif people. So this has to be lived throughout the school and the community and you can see the effect it has had. This is powerful experiential learning,” Caron noted.

Marshall is justifiably proud of not only teaching staff and students about the oral tradition of the Michif language, but also as a self-described lifelong learner. She’s also proud of the fact that “we are doing something that has never been done before and we’re making very real connections. I think all cultural languages are important and we do a wonderful job of honouring that.

“They [students] all have something to be proud of, and as the teacher, you just have to find it and nurture it. It’s about a sense of belonging.”

Maurice, by her own admission, is one of those individuals who likes to say things quite plainly. Clearly this program has awakened a passion in her soul as she has been instrumental in instilling a sense of pride within the students by learning about their own culture and language.

Marshall and Maurice are among several staff members who are becoming more fluent in Michif themselves with the considerable help of Elder Norman Fleury in particular, who is able to teach the language and provide the necessary translation.

As part of Westmount’s strong belief in creating a family-type atmosphere, both Marshall and Maurice are known as “auntie.”  No matter the title staff members feel comfortable with–they have been very involved in co-teaching with colleagues. According to Caron, the new school year will see Marshall adopt a full-time co-teaching role in an effort to further build capacity to all staff members (many of whom are of Métis ancestry and graduates of the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program).

Maurice said that becoming more adept at Michif herself has given her a greater sense of pride, and it helps make a stronger connection with the students because they see their teachers as learners also.

For Marshall, this is a great way to make a connection to her heritage.

“I knew basically zero before. It wasn’t something that was taught when I was in school. My grandmother could speak Michif, but it skipped a generation and so there’s a strong sense of reconnection and identity that I’ve experienced.”

Caron had been out of the classroom prior to coming to Westmount in 2017 after having been seconded to the Ministry of Education and touring the province as part of the lauded Following Their Voices initiative. She said that experience just whetted her appetite for her current role.

“I couldn’t wait for this opportunity. This was where I wanted to be for sure and just to imagine what we could do here.”

At this point, Maurice interjected by making sure the visitor understood that she [Caron] was the one that made a lot of this happen and that it’s her baby.

Marshall said she has seen a noticeable change in students’ confidence and pride in understanding their heritage.

“It’s basically a result of the fact that they know who they are and we’re instilling pride. You can see it and with their families as well when they come to the school.”

Maurice concurred, adding that the process has broken down barriers for members of the community and there is more openness. She confirmed that as parents, they want the best for the children, “which is exactly what we want as well.”

School counsellor Jackie Cuthbert, who joined the conversation briefly, agreed that she has also noticed the greater inclusion of parents and community members in school activities, which she is cognizant of fostering.

“It’s more like a family event. We really have gotten the community involved. Everyone knows what’s going on at the school and they want to know, so that’s key. Our kids are being groomed as future leaders and that’s wonderful to see.”

Maurice said it’s been fabulous to see the rejuvenation of the language and the culture, which she insists go hand in hand.

“The thing for me is that you can see what these kids can do and so you just want to dive in because there’s so much potential. We’re all impatient but we want to see the success for our students. This isn’t about a paycheque and nobody is looking for handouts. It’s about the treatment of my people and it hasn’t always been that great, but we are raising expectations and getting more people on board. It’s what our kids deserve and they are very capable. Our job is to listen and encourage them, and to instill that sense of pride.”

Caron agrees that this was never going to be easy and there were a lot of people–including at the board office–who had to be convinced that this was a valuable, unique program.

“My hope is that every person at the board office will have a better understanding and have competency in both Métis culture and the Michif language. I dream that at some point this will be a program for the entire city, and it’s not something we are going to give up on.”

An important part of what this means for Caron is that with the right people in place, there’s a chance for people of Métis heritage to be involved in future planning, “so that it’s not about us but without us [as in the past].

“For a long time, even with the best intentions, there were some unintended messages that we couldn’t do this ourselves and we’re proving that’s not the case. I’ve never been in a place in my career in education that has felt like it’s home like it is here. That’s so fantastic because you want to see yourself reflected in the building. This is such an amazing place and what’s happening here is powerful and magical,” she said with palpable emotion.

Equally as emotional, Marshall said the impact for her personally to be involved has been profound, adding that “what we have seen with our students is validation that what we’re doing is so important. It’s for all students, not just Métis students. We want everyone to feel a sense of pride and we see it with some of our students who have come to Canada who have joined our dance group, as an example. 

Just to see the pride in their face brings tears to your eye. It hits you just how proud these kids are and it’s a living, breathing thing which is beautiful. It’s like we’re saying we’re not just here to be an opening act any longer. 

“We’re raising a whole new generation and it takes a really long time but we’re willing to put in the work.”