Life in the frozen north: Native Canadians fight history, and each other, to save their language

In a remote community in northeastern Quebec, Rachel Savage meets the group of indigenous Canadian women finding themselves through their language

Saturday 03 November 2018 20:49
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In a community of just 1,356 people, it is an uphill struggle
In a community of just 1,356 people, it is an uphill struggle

When she was a child, Cheyenne Vachon’s grandfather asked her to fetch water. She continued to play, bouncing a ball up and down on a paddle. By the time she got around to doing the chore, her grandfather had already got the water himself. “He said, ‘Sit down, I’m going to tell you a story.’ And I said, ‘Oh god, not again.’”

The story was about a family of Naskapis, the indigenous Canadian First Nation that Ms Vachon’s mother belonged to, in the bush in the days when they were still nomadic. A hunter was about to return with his catch and there was excitement in the air at the prospect of days of hunger coming to an end. The boys set about chopping wood and the women got ready to prepare the caribou. But the young girl of the family did not fetch water for cooking the meat and making broth for the babies and sick elders, as she was supposed to. By the time the rest of the family realised, it was too late. As a result, the young girl’s seriously ill grandmother died.

It was always the way with Ms Vachon’s grandfather, when she was growing up in the close-knit native reservations that border Schefferville, a small, remote mining town in northeastern Quebec. Instead of punishing her, he would tell stories. But she never understood why. Not until her late thirties, when she was studying Naskapi language as part of a teacher training course run by the prestigious McGill University.

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