On Wednesday evenings, from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., the halls of St. Alban’s Cathedral in Prince Albert, Sask., is abuzz with activity as young and old gather over a typical meal of bannock, soup or stew, vegetables and fruits.
As soon as the plates and utensils have been cleared, the walls reverberate with the sound of voices enunciating words and syllables of a language that has been lost to many native people of Canada. Welcome to the Cree language class at St. Alban’s, a new, 39-week program that has received $15,000 in funding from the Anglican Healing Fund, established by the Anglican Church of Canada in 1991 to address the impact of the Indian residential school system in aboriginal communities across Canada.
The program has attracted a mix of students-ages 7 to 70-aboriginal and non-aboriginal, Anglican and non-Anglican.
It began when the dean of St. Alban’s, Ken Davis, first came to Prince Albert in 2010 and wanted to learn Cree since half of the cathedral’s morning congregants and a majority of Christians in northern Saskatchewan are Cree.
“I began looking around for people and institutions that might offer language teaching, and there were none,” recalled Davis, who served as a priest in the diocese of Toronto for 24 years, 12 of them as rector of All Saints in Whitby, Ont., before moving to the diocese of Saskatchewan.
As he began to meet parishioners and to travel around the diocese on assignments by the diocesan bishop, Michael Hawkins, Davis discovered that he was not alone in wanting to learn Cree. Loss of language, which has been identified as one of the tragic consequences of residential schools, had affected many third- and fourth- generation natives, who couldn’t speak or understand the language of their ancestors. “They wanted to learn the language of their grandparents, but they also didn’t have someone to teach them, and they wanted to teach it to their children and grandchildren,” said Davis in an interview.
Davis sought funding from various local charities to put on a Cree language course but was not successful, until he applied to the healing fund.
“We were approved last December, and I had to scramble to find a teacher and a way to provide meals because my application is centred on a family community meal…we’re talking about rebuilding and healing,” said Davis. He didn’t have to look far for a teacher-the Rev. Samuel Hackett, a deacon of the diocese, had been a Cree teacher. Davis and Hackett had often been on the road together for congregational visits, and on their three-to-four-hour journeys they often talked about language, faith and the church.
Luckily, Halkett -who lives at Little Red River Reserve, about a half-hour’s drive away from Prince Albert-was not only available, but also eager to teach the class. His wife, Elizabeth, could also prepare the meals.
“I think it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to share my knowledge and language with others,” said Halkett in an interview. “It’s pretty inspirational to get back something that you’ve lost along the way, especially if it’s your heritage, eh?”
Cree was Halkett’s first language, having grown up with his grandparents since he was two. He also studied the Cree language-learning its rules of grammar and structure. Cree is “a beautiful, smooth language,” which has different dialects, he explained. What he’s teaching is the Y dialect, which he describes as “the easiest and most commonly used.”
The community response to the free classes has been phenomenal, said Davis. The program was designed for only 20 people, but 79 people signed up. Davis found himself seeking donations to help with the cost of providing meals and some, including the bishop, have stepped up to the plate.
The classes have already fostered “a great spirit of fellowship and good humour,” said Davis. Many of the students are not parishioners “but they are very much at home in our hall and with Sam,” he said. “There’s a sense of welcome and purpose, and people have really responded to that. We come prepared to learn.”
Students are learning conversational Cree, and Halkett’s method has been interactive and unconventional. He started the program by asking students to help him assemble a full-sized 18-foot teepee, incorporating the teaching of culture with language instruction. “We learn about the traditional values of First Nation communities, which have absolutely perfect coordinates in Christian teaching, and Sam, being both a devout disciple of Jesus and a great cultural leader and teacher, can marry the two in a wonderful way,” said Davis.
For Halkett, it’s about “getting into the issues of my audience; I put myself in their shoes.” The excitement that comes with teaching is the interaction with and among students, he added. He puts students in everyday situations, where they talk about the weather or ask for bread or butter at mealtimes. He also invites them to share what they’d like to learn. “I tell them, ‘This is your class.’ ”
Terry Pelletier, whose biological family speaks Cree, says he and his girlfriend joined the class because they had been thinking about learning the language for years. When they attend native ceremonies, “a lot of elders tell us we should be speaking Cree more,” he said in an interview. He found out about the class through a newspaper article. “I’m surprised how quickly I’m moving along,” he said.
On a personal level, Davis said he hopes that at the end of the program, he will be able to “greet, respond, understand and carry on a conversation when I’m meeting my brothers and sisters who are Cree.” But more than that, it is his “heart’s desire” that the Cree language be restored, renewed and reintroduced in families, and that doing so will help build bridges and lead to healing.