Al­go­nquin comes to life in Otipi

Stanstead Journal - - FRONT PAGE -

Lan­guage ex­tinc­tion is a grim re­al­ity to­day; we lose on av­er­age one lan­guage ev­ery two weeks. When we lose a lan­guage, we also lose a cul­ture and much of that cul­ture’s own unique knowl­edge of the world we live in.

In Canada, there are about sixty dis­tinct in­dige­nous lan­guages, but only a hand­ful of those are still strong and vi­brant. The Abenaki lan­guage, once spo­ken by Na­tive Amer­i­cans living along the St. Fran­cis and Coat­i­cook Rivers, is re­port- edly spo­ken to­day by about ten speak­ers and is clas­si­fied as ‘nearly ex­tinct’. The Al­go­nquin lan­guage is a lit­tle stronger, spo­ken by about 1,800 and in the ‘threat­ened’ cat­e­gory.

Cyn­thia Cas­tonguay, a Metis Que­be­cois who moved

to the Stanstead area al­most four years ago, has found an in­ter­est­ing way to help keep the Al­go­nquin lan­guage alive: she has writ­ten a de­light­ful and bilin­gual chil­dren’s au­dio book, in French and Al­go­nquin, called tipi ac­itc i on

Racine et rin­temps . “I be­came in­ter­ested in Na­tive cul­ture when I was a teenager, and more so when I did a stage in So­cial Work in Val-d’Or with Na­tives there,” ex­plained Ms. Cas­tonguay in an in­ter­view with the Stanstead Jour­nal. Mak­ing many friends there, Cyn­thia’s stage evolved into a length­ier stay, giv­ing her the chance to learn more about the chal­lenges be­ing faced by that com­mu­nity. “I heard so many sto­ries from the Na­tives, like about the Res­i­den­tial schools. The past has pro­voked what is go­ing on to­day on many re­serves, the pain and suf­fer­ing. That re­ally touched me and I re­al­ized how im­por­tant it was to give value to a cul­ture, and lan­guage is a very im­por­tant part of that.”

The small pic­ture book, which comes with an au­dio CD, tells the sim­ple story of an Amerindian boy and his par­ents as they await a new ad­di­tion to the fam­ily. “The book was big­ger at first, but friends told me I should keep it sim­ple,” said Cyn­thia who plans to write a se­ries of four books all to­gether, one for each sea­son. “I might make one of the later books more com­pli­cated, but for this book, I tried to use sim­ple words that were very ba­sic.” With the help of the au­dio CD, while chil­dren and adults read the book they can try speak­ing Al­go­nquin, a lan­guage that is as much a part of our Canadian his­tory as English or French.

A mother of two young chil­dren of Metis Que­be­cois – Al­go­nquin her­itage, Cyn­thia also wrote the book for them. “The Al­go­nquin lan­guage is very ex­pres­sive; there is so much mean­ing and de­scrip­tion in the words. But in the Res­i­den­tial schools the chil­dren were pun­ished for speak­ing their lan­guage so now, when the grand­par­ents try to speak with their grand­chil­dren, they don’t un­der­stand them. It’s as if it is trau­matic for them to speak their own lan­guage. I don’t want my boys to feel the weight of that. I be­lieve that the more peo­ple hear the Al­go­nquin lan­guage, the more value the lan­guage will have. Right now, the Al­go­nquin lan­guage is in dan­ger; it is mostly only el­ders who speak it.”

On the CD, be­sides the read­ing, in French and Al­go­nquin, of the spring­time-themed fam­ily story, there is also an orig­i­nal Al­go­nquin song, writ­ten and sung by the au­thor her­self. “It’s a lit­tle song that I made up to sing to my chil­dren as I dressed them. My friends liked the song and started singing it as they dressed their chil­dren, so I de­cided to in­clude it on the CD.”

Cyn­thia’s older son, Liam De­cour­say, pro­vided the nar­ra­tion on the CD. “It was hard for him to do the record­ing be­cause he couldn’t move at all in front of the mi­cro­phone. He’s also go­ing through a stage when it’s hard to be dif­fer­ent from oth­ers. He was happy to fin­ish it! But now when he sees that peo­ple are in­ter­ested in it and lis­ten to it, he is so proud. When he prac­tices his Al­go­nquin he re­con­nects back to that cul­ture.”

Ms. Cas­tonguay has pre­sented the book tipi ac­itc i on Racine et rin­temps to Liam’s class at ardin des Fron­tieres school, in Stanstead. “The stu­dents seemed to like the book and they were very cu­ri­ous about it. You could see the light in their eyes,” said Cyn­thia who would like to present her book in as many el­e­men­tary schools as she is in­vited to. When the au­thor does a pre­sen­ta­tion, she brings along sev­eral Na­tive Amer­i­can ob­jects, like some of the items fea­tured in the story, for the stu­dents to dis­cover.

Cyn­thia her­self learnt Al­go­nquin as a young adult living in the La Verendrye Re­serve in the Ou­taouais re­gion. “Dif­fer­ent lan­guages show dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing. You change your per­cep­tion of the world when you learn a new lan­guage, and now it’s trans­form­ing my life. I car­ried this project of writ­ing the books with me for a long time be­cause it’s not just a lan­guage that could be lost, but a cul­ture,” con­cluded Ms. Cas­tonguay.

If you’d like to reach Cyn­thia Cas­tonguay for a copy of her book or to sched­ule a school or group pre­sen­ta­tion, you can email her at Cyn­thi­a_­cas­tonguay@ya­hoo.ca.

Photo Vic­to­ria Vanier

Cyn­thia Cas­tonguay, seen here with her young sons, Liam at right, has writ­ten a bilin­gual chil­dren’s book in French and Al­go­nquin en­ti­tled tipi ac­itc i on Racine et rin­temps .

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