Linguistic generation gap
Adults fail to pass on the Dene language

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Feb 04/00) - A series of interviews with the Deh Cho's aboriginal people have revealed many adults possess traditional knowledge and Dene language skills, but are not teaching them to their children.

That was one of the findings of the Deh Cho Dene Language Working Group, which made a presentation during a luncheon at the Deh Cho First Nations boardroom in Fort Simpson Friday.

"There's still enough (traditional) knowledge among the adults to still maintain a strong Dene culture ... but that's not happening," said working group member Roy Fabien.

"We do have a generation gap. The gap is us, the adults ... We're not doing our job. It seems that we're operating in English now. English is becoming our way of life."

The boardroom was covered in charts, graphs and summations. The charts indicated that elders have the strongest connection to the Slavey language and aboriginal culture.

The percentages drop slightly for adults and plunge among children.

"When we say we're losing our culture -- we're not losing it -- we're not using it," Fabien noted. "Someone came up with the saying, 'Use it or lose it,' and that's very, very true."

He told the 25 people in attendance, including several elders, that he had been as guilty of neglect as anybody else. As a former vice-president of the Dene Nation, he used to make speeches about the importance of retaining the Dene culture and the language. Yet, it was his mother-in-law who taught the eldest of his four children how to speak Slavey, he said.

"You know what caused that? It was my shame," he divulged, adding that he had been taught in residential school that being Dene was not good.

Some recommendations the working group is making include speaking the Dene language daily, teaching it in school, using spring and fall cultural camps, conversational language courses and the creation of a Dene language CD-Rom.

NWT Senator Nick Sibbeston, who attended the luncheon, suggested that children must be spoken to in the Dene language frequently at an early age.

"I think if work is done with parents, I think it can be brought back," he said.

Sibbeston further suggested that the Quebec example be looked at closely. There have been methods used there to preserve French that could be implemented in the Deh Cho, he said.

For example, the Quebec government once paid residents to have babies. Here, people could be offered a financial incentive to learn to speak Slavey, he said.

He also suggested that when a Dene-style government is in place in the Deh Cho, legislation could be passed to force non-Dene people to learn to speak Slavey as immigrants to Quebec must learn French. As well, he said signs could be regulated to include Slavey and school programming could be revised, he said.

It won't be an easy task, especially considering the Deh Cho Process needs to be fulfilled and requires much attention, but if there is a will, there is a way, he said.