When Rita Flamand was a young girl growing up in Camperville, Manitoba, she wasn’t allowed to speak her Metis tongue at school.
“They told me it wasn’t a real language,” she recalls. “They said it was a bastard language.”
Michif draws its verbs from Plains Cree or Ojibwe, while its nouns and articles are usually French. Like the Metis, it is a blending of cultures with its own unique identity. Despite having the five basic components of an independent language – syntax, semantics, pragmatics, morphology and phonology — it has traveled a difficult road to receiving official recognition, partly because there is no cohesive written form of the language.
Flamand has been working to change that. Since graduating from Red River College’s Aboriginal Interpreter program in 1998, she’s has been working as a translator on projects ranging from provincial voting guides to children’s cartoons, bettering her understanding of Michif as she builds toward a magnum opus: a Michif dictionary.
“I have everything set out to publish,” Flamand says, “I’m just dealing with the copyright issues… And I’ve been so busy using the stuff I took from RRC — translating and translating.”
It’s an unlikely project for a woman who only completed Grade 8. (Funding controversies at the time prevented Flamand and her classmates from progressing further.) She remembers working a variety of jobs as young as 14, traveling through Manitoba and northern Ontario to clean homes and look after children. A practical nursing course later on opened new job opportunities as far west as B.C., but also landed her in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Winnipegosis for a couple years in the mid-1950s.
Flamand married and raised eight children with her husband. When the last moved out in the ‘90s, Flamand faced a pressing choice; what to do next?
“My friend Darlene Timash knew I wanted to do something with my language – I was trying to get a writing system going at the time. She said ‘Rita, there’s a course starting at Red River College for Aboriginal interpreters, you should sign up.’”
At 67, Flamand headed back to school.
“When I went to RRC, I was the only Michif person in the course, the rest were studying Ojibwe and Cree… Now that was such a good course. They put me in touch with linguists, some of who weren’t even aware of Michif, that there was a language that blended European and Aboriginal tongues so well.”
“I stayed in touch with my teachers, even after I left college, using the tools I had picked up to develop my writing system. My teacher’s great advice was ‘Don’t wait until you’ve finished coming up with a system to start translating.’”
Flamand’s translating resume spans a wide spectrum of works. She translated the voter’s guide for the 1999 provincial election into Michif and has done a variety of projects for the federal government, including Parks Canada plaques and guides. She’s worked for APTN and other Aboriginal television producers providing Michif translations for shows like “Arty and the Ants” and the holiday special “Sparkle with Andrea Menard.”
She also had a chance to refine her Michif writing system in 2002, when she taught for two terms at the Metis Resource Centre in Winnipeg. It’s a role she’s occasionally been able to continue, volunteering in the Frontier School District to help the next generation appreciate their Metis heritage.
Red River College changed Flamand’s life in another way; one she still likes to laugh about.
“It was the first time I learned to use a computer! My god, was that ever wonderful. At first I was so scared of it, but now most of my work is through the computer. I used to do all my translating by hand — can you imagine?”
As enthusiastic as Flamand is for her upcoming dictionary, she also appreciates the fluidity of Michif. The variety of dialects that exist due to the multiplicity of influencing Aboriginal languages make her hesitant to cast one definitive text in stone.
“I don’t want to push my version on anyone.”
Still, the woman who calls herself “just an old great grannie” is excited for the guide that will ensure future Metis children know they have a language to call their own.
Photo credit: Jane Heller, Ota Nda Yanaan (otandayanaan.net)
Profile by Matt TenBruggencate (second year, Creative Communications)