Arts & Life
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THREE women from St. Laurent who have preserved and promoted an endangered language for years — even penning a dictionary for it — have been recognized for their efforts by the University of Winnipeg.
Lorraine Coutu-Lavallee, June Bruce and Agathe Chartrand each received an honorary doctor of letters from the Winnipeg school for protecting and promoting Michif-French, as it’s spoken in St. Laurent on the southeast shore of Lake Manitoba.
The women were honoured during a virtual graduation acknowledgement ceremony the Manitoba Metis Federation hosted in June.
Bruce, Coutu-Lavallee and Chartrand are Métis elders, and have become known to some as the "Dictionary Ladies."
Coutu-Lavallee said she found out about her honorary doctorate just days before receiving it.
"It was a big surprise — it was great," she said this week.
Coutu-Lavallee grew up speaking Michif-French. When she went to public school, she was forced to learn and speak English and Quebec-style French. She switched back to Michif when she went home to her parents.
"That was our language," she said. "The kids out there, they don’t speak Michif anymore. They all speak English."
In 2016, 1,170 Canadians reported they could speak Michif well enough to hold a conversation, according to a Statistics Canada census. Most Michif speakers came from Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Coutu-Lavallee joined forces with Bruce and Chartrand to continue the language’s existence.
The trio created the first St. Laurent-style Michif-French dictionary, along with Doris Mikolayenko-Leclerc and Patricia Millar-Chartrand, both of whom have since died.
It took them five years — the language had never been written before. The women wrote every word first by sounding them out. They self-published the dictionary through McNally Robinson in 2016.
The Dictionary Ladies have taught Michif-French to pre-schoolers and school-aged children in St. Laurent, and adults in Winnipeg and Selkirk. They’ve created games to help children in learning the language: one uses a kitchen-themed vocabulary; another fashions words using a doll dressed up in traditional attire.
Coutu-Lavallee said she and her peers plan on teaching Michif-French classes to K-12 students at St. Laurent School this fall.
The group has met weekly since it began writing the dictionary in 2011, and has added new two women to the roster.
The latest project is translating a musical to Michif-French — Riel: Heart of the North, which focuses on a chapter of Louis Riel’s life, Coutu-Lavallee said. The play is to premiere in 2021.
Community Correspondent — Headingley
Gabrielle Piché is a community correspondent for Headingley. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated on Thursday, July 2, 2020 at 9:22 AM CDT: Adds photo
July 3, 2020 at 10:59 AM: Corrects spelling of Patricia Millar-Chartrand's name
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