Belinda Daniels said she comes from a generation of Cree people who felt shame and trepidation growing up for trying to speak the Cree language, and who were criticized by others for not speaking it properly.
But she’s now working to change that for others. Daniels is the organizer and founder of the Nehiyawak Summer Language Program, a Saskatchewan language-acquisition camp that has been running for 13 years and aims for total Cree immersion for participants by its end.
Daniels, who is from the Sturgeon Lake First Nation — about 30 kilometres northwest of Prince Albert, Sask. — was raised by her grandparents, as her mother died while she was young. Though she grew up around fluent Cree speakers, she was raised to speak English.
When she asked why, she said “my mosom’s [grandfather’s] response was that he didn’t think speaking Cree would get me anywhere and wanted me to be successful in western education.”
Though the idea to stamp out Indigenous language came from western education, and specifically Canada’s residential school system — Daniels’s grandfather had attended a residential school — it was western education which strengthened her resolve to learn her language.
“There is a traumatic sense of loss within me as a result of that practice, as a result of that attitude,” Daniels said. “Language recovery work, it is actually a form of medicine.”
Census data may be misleading, organizer says
Now with children of her own, both in their 20s and participants of the camp, Daniels holds the camp every year in different parts of the province to raise awareness about language revitalization. She said there’s a waiting list to get in and it has grown in size over the years.
“We keep the participant numbers small so that students have the best possible exposure to learning,” she said, noting there are about 11 speakers and 16 participants in 2017 — when it started, there were five all together.
This growing number of people who want to be exposed to their traditional language or to teach it comes at a time when the federal government’s census numbers indicate the number of people who speak an Indigenous language in Saskatchewan has actually decreased.
Daniels, however, said she thinks the census data needs to be taken with a…