“I didn’t expect this, it warms my heart. But when I look back at all the work I’ve done over the last few years, I tell myself I made my contribution!” says with a smile Nicole Petiquay, winner of the 2022 Prize for the Promotion of Indigenous Languages at the University of Montreal. This award seeks to recognize the work of indigenous peoples committed to the preservation and transmission of their languages. Established in 2020 by the Kwe Kwe Committee, in partnership with the Assistant Secretary General for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Relations with First Peoples, the Award is part of efforts developed around the Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032) to highlight Cultures indigenous.
The Atikamekw Language Services Coordinator at the Atikamekw Nation Council received her award on June 22, the day after National Indigenous Peoples Day. The ceremony was hosted by Louis-Philippe Boivin-Grenon, a graduate of the Faculty of Law, and broadcast live over the internet.
Guardian of the Atikamekw language
Originally from Wemotaci, Nicole Petiquay taught Atikamekw in elementary school for 19 years. “When I started, I couldn’t read or write Atikamekw,” she says. Marthe Coocoo, who worked hard to preserve the language, taught it then “and I thank her, that’s when I wanted to learn”, adds the winner. Since then, she has continued to delve into the language and speak with her elders. She also completed a certificate at Laval University to become a technolinguist.
Since 2008, she has coordinated a team at the Conseil de la Nation Atikamekw that offers language-related activities in the three Atikamekw communities (Wemotaci, Manawan and Opitciwan). In recent years, Nicole Petiquay has worked, among other things, on the Atikamekw online dictionary, a long-term project carried out with several partners. “It’s more of a tool for our young people, but it’s also a reference for everyone,” she notes. Although Atikamekw is doing very well (the language is spoken by 90% of the members of the three communities), Ms.I Petiquay still notes a certain fragility. “I listen when young people speak, they use a lot of French words, and I do that myself,” she notes.
She has also collaborated on Atikamekw language research conducted by researcher Marie-Odile Junker at Carleton University, in particular to design and distribute extensive research on skills and attitudes towards the mother tongue. “There are not many writings in the Atikamekw language. My goal is to spread this language”, explains Nicole Petiguay, who was also responsible for distributing the research results to the Atikamekw communities.
A professor at the Department of Educational Sciences at the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières (UQTR), Nicole Petiquay has trained teachers and educators from the three communities. She taught courses 1 and 2 on the fundamentals of teaching the Algonquian language in the Atikamekw language micro-program established by the UQTR to train Atikamekw teachers. “It was a success, even the school principals were thrilled,” she says. Another cohort is expected this fall or next winter.
“Language must be preserved and safeguarded. This is what nourishes me in my work”, underlines the one who would like to teach even more Atikamekw language classes. Seeing young children using Atikamekw (thanks mainly to the bilingual education program at the primary school) encourages him, however. Since 1992, the Wemotaci community has offered kindergarten entirely in Atikamekw, then gradually introduced French until the sixth grade, where 90% of teaching is in French and 10% in Atikamekw. In Manawan, both programs are offered to parents (French or bilingual), while instruction takes place in French in Opitciwan.
Surrounded by her team, Nicole Petiquay looks forward to continuing to share her love for her mother tongue. “I always say jokingly that my goal is for the entire planet to speak Atikamekw. It feeds me!” she concludes.