Norman Fleury, a respected Métis Elder and Michif speaker.
“I come from generations — they were the buffalo people, they were the fur trade people, they made their own language, they made their own stories, their dances, their songs, became a people with the help of God,” says Norman Fleury, a respected Michif speaker who wrote a dictionary of Michif terms. “They were able to adapt with different nationalities, but they made their own and they knew who they were.”
Fleury is the foremost translator for the Gabriel Dumont Institute, a non-profit Métis organization that promotes the renewal and development of Métis culture through research and education, and a lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan. Fleury’s Métis lineage goes back seven generations on both his parents’ sides, with ancestors who were part of the resistances in Red River and Batoche.
Raised by his grandmother, Flora (Nee Lepine) LeClerc, he once asked her where Michif came from. She told him to return the next day, as Elders do, so she could take time to ponder before answering. Fleury says the next day she told him, “God made the world, made everything. Over the water, there’s people. The Germans speak German, and the English speak English. Over here, the Sioux speak Sioux; the Blackfoot speak Blackfoot language. God created all those people. It’s just like a hoop, a circle. It was our turn to be created, and we finished that hoop. We were the last nation that God created, and he gave us a language and we’re a nationality. We’re Michif and we speak Michif. We brought that hoop together.”
She continued, “God gives us those kinds of connections, spiritually, with the world, with our own nations, our stories, our histories, our medicines, our belief systems that are all connected. We cannot put things together without having that spiritual connection.”
Fleury emphasizes that Michif is a nationality encompassing the language. Old songs that came from France were “Michif-ized,” he says. The pronunciation of French nouns was often Michif-ized, too. For example, “les chevaux,” which means “the horses,” became “Lii zhvoo.” In Michif, “li zhwall” means the horse, but in French it’s “le cheval.”
Sometimes Michif borrowed from English, but even then words were so absorbed into Michif that native speakers often didn’t realize they had any other origin, as in the case of a woman who asked what the English word was for “beans” — the word had long ago been adopted into Michif from the English-speaking workers at Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts.
“Michif was a family language, it was a ceremonial language, and it was a trade language,” says Fleury.
Communities spoke Michif among themselves and within their homes. For many generations, most Métis were illiterate and remembered important information in the oral traditions of their First Nations ancestors. Schools run by missionaries were instruments of colonization that prohibited the use of Michif in classrooms.
The ceremonial aspect of the language came from elements of Catholicism and First Nations spirituality, which were fundamental to the Michif worldview, and morphed into words and customs that became uniquely Michif. Fleury remembers his grandmother tying a black nylon cloth around his eyes to watch the sunrise on Easter mornings and seeing the vibrating, shimmering light that conveyed the glory of the risen Christ. His grandmother, a Catholic, was taught to kneel when picking medicines, like she was praying, and to lay down tobacco, in the way of the Cree.
Many Métis participated in the sundance and other First Nations ceremonies, and they respected protocols that still are not discussed casually with outsiders. The values of Métis are inextricably bound in the language. When Michif people began to marry outside the culture after the Second World War, the language fell into disuse. Parents stopped using Michif in their homes, and the language declined, says Fleury.
Fleury, who speaks Heritage Michif, which is considered the first Michif language, is possessive of Michif as a nationality and culture, but he says he readily accepts other versions of the language that emerged within historical Métis communities, dubbed by Gabriel Dumont Institute as Michif French and Northern Michif. However, not all Métis agree with this viewpoint. Instead, they feel that funding for Heritage Michif should be prioritized over the others.
Fleury also has a great fondness for Dutch linguist Peter Bakker, who helped introduce Heritage Michif to the wider world in the 1990s but also raised the alarm among Métis that their language was in peril. At that time, Bakker estimated that there were just 500 fluent speakers of Heritage Michif remaining.
“All of a sudden it was a reawakening, and [Métis] said, ‘That’s right! Nobody speaks that at home. Our kids are not speaking it,’” says Fleury.
“If a language disappears, then also a culture disappears and a whole system of knowledge,” says Bakker. “Each language is a unique solution to the communication problem. How do we divide the world into objects and actions and how creative people are in maintaining and changing the language…. Sometimes it’s said that each language that disappears, it’s like the Louvre museum in Paris burning down or the Library of Congress burning down.”
As a linguist devoted to the scientific study of languages, Bakker thought he knew a lot about how languages were created by different groups coming together, but Heritage Michif surprised him when he stumbled upon it in 1985: it blended two languages in a way he’d never seen before, using French nouns and Cree verbs.
In 1987, Bakker, who already spoke French, came to Canada and lived with the Henry Daniels family at Saskatchewan’s Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation to learn Cree, so he could analyze the Michif language. He met with Heritage Michif speakers in Manitoba and the northern U.S. and with speakers of other versions of Michif in Métis communities in Manitoba, central and northwest Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Among the 7,000 known languages in the world, only about 30 are mixed languages, of which about 25 have a specific pattern where their vocabulary comes from one language while grammar comes from another. Mixed languages, such as Michif, evolve when speakers are bilingual in both originating languages. In the case of Métis, this would have begun when the voyageurs began to marry Cree and Nahkawininiwak (Saulteaux) women.
There were mutually beneficial reasons for intermarriage: the white men were accepted as kin among the First Nations fur-trapping people who knew how to thrive on the land and in the climate, while the Indigenous families gained a member with access to the traders. The bilingual couples smoothed relations in the fur trade, creating a peaceful co-existence between the disparate peoples. In the beginning, the children of these unions were brought up by their mothers as First Nations, but that changed over generations as more of the men made their lives in the northwest, leaving the employ of the trading companies and focusing on the bison hunt, trading in pemmican and hauling goods overland in the all-wood Red River carts they devised to increase the carrying capacity of horses.
While some Métis kept homes in the Red River area around present-day Winnipeg, others lived there only part of the year; some spent most of the year almost exclusively on the plains of Saskatchewan, Alberta and the northern U.S., following the bison; and others lived along the river systems in the northern forests. Métis often spoke the languages of Cree, Nahkawininiwak (Saulteaux), Dene and other First Nations, as well as French and English, which allowed them to interact and trade wherever they went.
With that ability, Bakker wondered why Métis would create a new language. To answer that, he needed to know when the language first appeared. There was scant information in the historical record about when the language emerged: Bakker found a reference to Michif from the 1930s and learned of other references from the 1890s. Elderly Michif speakers recounted oral history that traced Michif usage to at least as early as 1840, facts confirmed by missionaries’ genealogy records.
Michif was not created as a necessity for the fur trade, Bakker found. By 1840, many generations of bilingual speakers had long been trading successfully in French, Nahkaw? and Cree. Besides, trade languages are usually simple pidgins, when speakers with no common language create a lingo they can both understand, or creoles, when a primitive pidgin gains wider usage, develops a complete grammar and becomes the mother tongue of new generations.
Heritage Michif is anything but simple. In addition to its intricate, descriptive Cree verb system, its French system of nouns and adjectives includes the unpredictable gender assignments of articles, such as “le” and “la” (the masculine and feminine forms of “the”) and “un” and “une” (masculine and feminine forms of “a”).
“It seems that the most complex categories of each language are part of Michif instead of the most simple,” writes Bakker in his groundbreaking 1997 book, A Language of Our Own: The Genesis of the Mixed Cree-French Language of the Canadian Métis, which focuses on Heritage Michif.
Nowhere in the world did an economy trigger a language with the complexity and mixed nature of Michif. Its emergence is comparable to the way young people invent new words or use existing words in new ways to create an insider’s language that distinguishes them from their parents, or what Bakker calls an “in-group” language.
These types of languages are “the utmost language of solidarity for the group members and a distancing language for non-group members,” writes Bakker in A Language of Our Own.
“In this case it is very likely that [Michif developed] in the early 1800s when basically, the Métis started to see themselves as a separate group, different from both the French and the Cree,” he says.
The generations who had intermarried, bringing the languages and customs of their First Nations and European ancestors to their new families, had children who married each other. This expanding population grew up without ever living with their First Nations relations or in the white settler cities and communities of Eastern Canada. The sense of being their own people, unaccustomed to outside authority, flourished in an era before Confederation where the colonial rule had not reached the northwest and the Hudson’s Bay Company exercised its authority as de facto government only where and when it needed to for the sake of business. Heritage Michif was born amid the subsequent life of freedom on the plains.
“Métis “began to think, act and identify as a separate group. They gave themselves a collective name: the Bois-Brûlés (who would later become the Métis Nation).… They were fiercely proud of their independence and freedom,” writes Jean Teillet, a founding member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, founding president of the Métis Nation Lawyers Association and Riel’s great grand-niece, in her book The North-West Is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People.
The fire of Métis nationhood was fanned by colonial authorities from the Hudson’s Bay Company who arrived on the Red River in 1812 with Scottish settlers and laws that benefited only them while hindering and excluding Métis. Participation in government, land and resource rights were at the heart of the conflict. By 1815, the Bois-Brûlés were flying their own flag, a white infinity symbol on a blue background. They asserted a new political consciousness and were developing their own language and culture, which they called Metif and pronounced Michif. In June 1816, the Bois-Brûlés fought HBC Governor Robert Semple and settlers at the Battle of Seven Oaks, the event that marks the birth of the Métis Nation.