Bringing Michif, the Métis language, back to the Northwest

By Eric Shih
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Thunder Bay Source

“Taamishi” is a word Collette Surovy would love to hear spoken more often. It means hello in the Michif language spoken traditionally by the Métis people.

Surovy is the cultural coordinator for the Northwestern Ontario Métis Child and Family Services, which is holding a language program for people who want to learn the language.

“I think it’s really important as people that we start reclaiming our language again,” Surovy said. “There are no fluent speakers in our area, which is very sad.”

Surovy said the free program is for anyone who self-identifies as Métis and will run as a hybrid model of online and in person learning in Kenora, Dryden, Atikokan and Fort Frances which will run for 20 weeks. She said anyone in the region is able to join even if they can’t make the in-person sessions.

“We’re trying to do this at a very basic level so that everyone can come on board and we really strongly encourage families to sign up,” she said.

“The Métis way of doing is having all the generations together. So traditionally you had the kokums [grandparents], you had the moms, the dads, the kids, even the cousins come over and get together and share and teach. We want that kind of atmosphere again.”

“It’s a sharing of that knowledge and really trying to reclaim our culture and as I’m sure anybody from an Indigenous background can tell you language is the base of our culture,” she said. “It’s who we are. We [are] identified by our language and often times our language is representative of our traditions and cultures.” 

She said they held a program last year, but it was all online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surovy said she is taking the course herself. Learning the language is important to her and she’s been working towards having language be part of anything Métis organizations are involved with or do. 

She helped organize another Michif language course in 2011 with the Kenora Métis Council.

“We got some funding to do a 20-week program and again we were working with almost literally nothing, unlike today where we have so many more resources. At that time, we had nothing except one workbook that a woman from Northern Manitoba had created,” she said. “Many of the people that were part of that program have been part of last year’s and again this current one. Some of them now have kids of their own that they’re bringing to it.”

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “So really, we’re at the beginning of the very long journey because we need to create environments where our children can learn, our adults can learn. We need to build some fluent speakers in our area and then be able to pass that down through the next generations. In order to do that, we need to have language classes.”