Juneau House was the site of a rare event this week: a crowd of strangers singing “Happy Birthday” in Michif.
It’s very easy to do, Michif language coach Graham Andrews told the crowd as they prepared to sing. “Happy birthday” is “Kwaayesh Tipishkuhm” (pronounced “Quai-esh deep shum”) and that’s the entirety of the song’s lyrics, get it? Ready, set –
And thus did 20-some people mark a young Métis man’s 25th birthday.
It was a festive atmosphere Wednesday night at Juneau House, home of Michif Cultural Connections in St. Albert. Participants from across central Alberta were at the inaugural meeting of a new conversation club meant to help people learn Michif – the traditional language of the Métis.
The idea for this club came out of the Michif language courses offered by St. Albert Further Education earlier this year, said Sharon Morin, programs director with Michif Cultural Connections.
“As we were finishing up that course, there was a desire to keep it up over the summer, but not quite as formalized,” Morin said.
That led to the idea of holding a club that would meet every other Wednesday this summer at Juneau House to keep their skills sharp until the Michif courses start up again this fall, Morin said. The club also provides a way for people to share their knowledge of Métis culture.
Roots of language
Michif is a mix of French nouns, Cree verbs, Anishinaabe pronunciations and “all sorts of crazy grammatical rules that we’ve kept over the years,” said Andrews, who is one of the handful of fluent Michif speakers in the Edmonton region.
Statistics Canada estimates that just 1,210 Canadians can hold a conversation in Michif – equivalent to about 0.2 per cent of the Métis population. The UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger lists Michif as "critically endangered," which is one step above "extinct."
This is the result of Canada’s centuries-long attempt to wipe out Indigenous peoples through instruments such as the residential schools, where many Métis, including his relatives, were made to feel ashamed of their identity, Andrews said.
“They stopped speaking (Michif) publically,” he said, and would only voice it in hushed tones around their children.
Nowadays, more and more people want to reclaim their roots as Métis, and that means learning the language, Andrews said.
“Our language and our culture are inseparable,” he said. As he put it to the group, “Lii Michif niyanaan” – “we are the Michif.”
The club was a casual affair, with people breaking off into smaller chats and Andrews serving as the group’s dictionary. Although most had never spoken a word of Michif before, many were soon trading phrases and greetings in it with gusto.
Andrews said it would have been unimaginable to see so many people speaking Michif together like this 25 years ago.
“It’s incredible,” he said.
“We had some nine-year-olds there last night – nine years old! – and today they can go out and say to someone ‘Taanishi’ (‘Hello’). Holy cow!”
The club will meet every second Wednesday at 9 Mission Ave. from now until Aug. 28, Morin said. Admission is free and open to anyone with an interest in Michif. Call 780-569-0090 for details.