Keeper of the flame
Joachim Bonnetrouge determined to rejuvenate the Dene language

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

NNSL (Oct 08/99) - No matter how bleak things get in terms of the decline of the Dene language, Joachim Bonnetrouge hangs onto the hope of the Maori experience.

He's been told that 20 years ago, these aboriginal people of New Zealand had as few as four elders remaining who could speak the Maori language. They developed a strategy known as the "language nest" where the elders spent the entire day with the babies and toddlers to pass on the language.

"I still really believe in the Maori model, the language nest," he said. "They've proven that it works." Now, tens of thousands of people speak the Maori language, he noted. The children, who grew up learning their indigenous language, eventually started to teach their parents, who had been the missing link in the equation.

"Can you imagine that? The little babies teaching their moms and dads to speak the language and how the social fabric started changing because of that," he said. "It's such a beautiful story."

Bonnetrouge heard of a number of efforts being made to support aboriginal languages here in Canada during a national conference in Penticton, B.C. last week. He said many people advocate bush camps for months at a time as an immersion-style program to teach younger children to speak their aboriginal language. There are simply too many distractions in the communities, he added.

Another successful method presented during the conference was that used by a Cree group from Saskatchewan, who have made great strides with a CD-ROM that enables people to learn the Cree or Ojibway language individually at their leisure. They have also incorporated the Cree language at the university level, an equivalent credit to English and French classes, he noted.

"They're working away and I think their language is going to survive," he said.

Bonnetrouge has been examining the possibility of implementing technological aids, such as CD-ROMs or even video games, in the Deh Cho, but there is a fundamental problem.

"Like anything else, it's funding, I guess," he said, adding that the GNWT is supposed to come through with some money. "I guess we need to let the public know that funding is always such a hinderance to all the good ideas that we have."

Representatives from two other Northern language groups -- Chipewyan and Gwich'in -- also attended the Penticton conference at the request of the Dene Cultural Institute. Bonnetrouge said they had planned to hold their own caucus, but it just didn't work out that way.

However, there are still hopes of getting regional representatives together "to share our trials and tribulations of working with our own language groups and to share our ideas," he said.

At the regional level, about 15 people attended a one-day language workshop in Fort Simpson last week and it was very productive, according to Bonnetrouge.

"We're beginning to talk about what they could really do at the community level and taking a look at some of the resources they have."