Sask. Rivers hoping to launch Cree program

Carlton Comprehensive Public High School. (Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Division)

The Saskatchewan Rivers School Division (SRSD) is hoping for insights from the public as it looks to launch a Cree Language program in its schools.

The SRSD is holding a gathering on Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. at the education centre to share ideas, ask questions and provide direction for the Cree language program.

Superintendent of Schools Randy Emmerson said the desire to create the program came out of both local requests and out of the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“We have Cree currently as a credit class within (Carlton and Wesmor),” he said. “What this program will be (is) students and families, as they enter school, will potentially have their children in a bilingual or Cree language program. At an early age, when the brain is most ready for development of language, there (will be) an opportunity or our young ones to grow up and become more fluent speakers within our community and area.”

Emmerson said that would likely start with a Kindergarten program and grow year-by-year. The school division, he said, would “sustain it with proper staffing and be sure that we’re creating a Cree Language program that’s going to create change within our communities and benefit all the people in our school division.”

Emmerson is working on this project alongside Victor Thunderchild, who teaches Cree at Carlton.

“We felt there was a need to be fulfilled through the calls to action,” Thunderchild said.

“We wanted to get needs fulfilled by the Cree speaking community which has been asking for a period of time when something like this was going to occur.”

Tuesday’s meeting is a way to talk with parents and find out what their wants and needs are.

‘We want them to give the direction as to where we want this program to go,” Thunderchild said.

“Most of the communication we’ve had so far is from the schools,” Emmerson added.

“It’s an opportunity for the wider community to come out and provide their input, some of their learnings and lessons as well.”

So far, Emmerson said, the school division has “heard loud and clear that there is a definite desire” for a Cree language program.

“We’ve heard that there are many families and many people in the community that believe this is going to be a valuable, healthy step for the community. Now what we’re hoping to hear is more of the nuts and bolts, guiding directional things from parents.”

SSRD isn’t the only school division looking to go this direction.

There are currently three Cree immersion schools in Saskatchewan operated by school divisions, the province said in a written response to Daily Herald questions.

Emmerson said SSRD is looking to programs currently being developed in Saskatoon as well as to schools in northern Saskatchewan for guidance as it works to create its own program.

“We’ve learned from them and we’ll continue to learn from them,” Emmerson said.

“Communities within our north have language programs and they’ve felt that it’s important the language is taught. We’re looking all around the province both within schools in the provincial system and other educational authorities for some of the education and guidance of what we would do.”

Emmerson said the province has been supportive. “They would love for this to occur,” he said. “Support in terms of other financial resources — at this point in time, well get lots of direction from them and they’re encouraging, but so far it’s supported in the form of guidance as well.”

While the Ministry of Education didn’t respond about this project directly, it did indicate in a written statement that school divisions can choose to offer Cree programming through courses or an immersion program. The instructional resource component for Cree immersion is funded 33 per cent higher than non-immersion students and schools, the province said.

Initiatives are also supported through the First Nations and Métis Education Achievement Fund, which directly impacts educational outcomes for First Nation and Métis students. Saskatchewan Rivers currently receives $524,771 from this fund.

“The Ministry of Education recognizes the benefits that come with students learning a second language and is committed to supporting Cree language opportunities for Saskatchewan students.”

Thunderchild emphasized the importance of creating those opportunities.

“Language passes on our traditions. Language also passes on our culture because there are things that are very difficult to be said in the English language where it’s better said in Cree,” he said.

“The understanding has a lot more impact. This way, youth can have communication with the elders a little more and the elders can start passing down some of their teachings onto the youth. We can continue on and flourish as a nation.”

Thunderchild said Cree was chosen for this project as it’s the largest Indigenous language-speaking population in the area. The Y-dialect will be used, he said. While other dialects are spoken locally, most resources are in the Y-dialect.

Emmerson added that the program could have the bonus of hoping to close the Indigenous-non-Indigenous achievement gap.

“If we continue doing what we’re going, we’re going to continue getting what we’ve got,” he said.

“What we’re getting is a difference in the level of achievement amongst our population. This is one of the ways we’re thinking that’s new, different engaging. It shows a degree of trust and commitment. As we look down the road, at some point in time, let’s not have an achievement gap. Let’s have all of our students all of our people … leaving as graduates instead of leaving with that achievement gap. It’s another way of looking outside of the box and ensuring we’re doing more to address what has been in place too long – that achievement gap.”

Emmerson said he hopes members of the community — parents, Cree speakers and other Indigenous language speakers come next Tuesday to learn more and help meet the Cree-speaking community’s needs.

He said the meeting is an opportunity to hear more from people “interested in the Cree language or other language development.”