Algonquin comes to life in Otipi
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.
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 .