Walk in to Westmount Community School and there's a chance you'll be greeted with "Taanishi."
Michif is a language of instruction for students at Westmount, home of Saskatoon Public Schools Métis Cultural Program, and the school's effort in infusing the language through its classroom and cultural learning begins with hello — Taanishi.
"Michif is the language of our people," says Principal Angie Caron. "The Michif people who settled around Saskatoon, such as the Round Prairie Michif, brought this language and their cultural traditions from the Red River in Manitoba.
"The Michif language is born of this land and it is therefore important that it be taught here. If not here on the plains, where it comes from, where else will it be valued and taught?"
Learning to speak Michif and providing learning within the language can be a challenge for both students and teachers. According to Caron, an estimated 90 per cent of Michif people today are unable to have a simple conversation in the language. And, while Michif has a long history as an oral language, its written form was developed fewer than 20 years ago.
Students and staff at Westmount benefit from the support of a few Michif speakers in and around Saskatoon who are willing to share their gift of language, particularly Norman Fleury whose support of the school and community in teaching the language and providing translations has been invaluable.
"Our work is made possible because of their strong commitment to keeping the language and the cultural traditions alive for future generations," Caron said.
The use of Michif as a component of student learning is done in a number of ways that build upon the oral tradition of the language while looking for new opportunities for students to express themselves.
"At Westmount Community School not only are we learning the oral tradition of Michif language, but we are doing something that has never been done before," says teacher Chandrelle Micklewright. "With Norman's translation we are actually teaching our students to read in Michif, which really helps with their phonemic awareness. It is making those connections."
Westmount is a diverse cultural community that includes many new Canadian students and families. While Michif has an important role within the school and the Métis Cultural Program, there is a recognition of the importance of the home languages and culture of all students.
"I think all cultural languages are important and we do a wonderful job of honouring that," Micklewright said. "We have a very diverse group of students and that is important. The one thing that Auntie Fay (staff member Fay Maurice) has instilled in us is that we want all of our children to have a sense of pride with their own culture and their own language, so we often have children share that with us as well."
The relative newness of written Michif can mean challenges, but it also provides opportunities to develop and lead in language instruction.
"The linguists, along with people like Norman, have written it using English phonetics, but it does have its own sounds that really aren't English sounds or French sounds or Cree sounds. We have developed a chart of consonant and vowels to provide the sounds to allow people to read the language," says Maurice.
Micklewright and Maurice are among the staff who are becoming more fluent in Michif and their contributions through co-teaching with classroom teachers and sharing the importance of infusing instruction with the language plays a significant role in strengthening the presence of Michif in all of the school's classrooms.
"You can imagine trying to build the capacity for the Michif language in a whole school," Caron says. "Right now we have students in kindergarten to Grade 4 getting that time with Auntie Chandy (Micklewright) and Auntie Fay in the actual classroom few times a week. Then we have students in the senior grades where they go in and support their classroom teacher in the learning that goes on in their classroom."
"We want to make sure that when teachers leave Westmount School that they can go out to whatever school they are going to and share that infusion of Métis content and perspectives."
Through their efforts, Westmount staff hope that Michif and the Métis culture will be an important part of the lives of students, their families and the entire school community.