A Cree language class at the University of Manitoba was nearly cancelled this past semester after only one person registered for the course.
But instructor Ken Paupankis insisted it go on, even if the low enrolment meant he wouldn’t be paid his full amount, because passing on the language is more to him important than making money, he says.
“Language surrounds us more than we realize,” he said. “There is so much historic and geographic significance — why places are named what they are — and a lot of those are Cree names.”
However, Statistics Canada’s 2021 census says only about one per cent of the Manitoban population has knowledge of the Cree language in their household. That’s about one-third of the number of people in the province who identify their ethnic or cultural origin as Cree, according to the census data.
The University of Manitoba offers five Cree language classes: two introductory courses, two intermediate course, and one on the structure of Cree language.
Right now, Paupanekis’s only student is in the second part of the intermediate course.
Paupankis says this is the second year the university has split up the introductory and intermediate courses into two parts, and that new approach may take a few years to gain momentum.
But for the time being, he doesn’t mind teaching the lone student, since he knows that person is also interested in teaching the language to others.
“It’s hard enough to get people to go beyond and be instructors of the language. That’s one of the reasons why I’m still here,” said Paupanekis, a 79-year-old from Norway House who started teaching part-time 16 years ago.
Next generation of language speakers
Samuel Robinson, 27, is Paupanekis’s only student this term.
Cree was his first language and what he spoke until he was three years old, when he started learning English.
“As a kid, I used to follow my grandma around and copy whatever she would say,” said Robinson.
He’s from Bunibonibee Cree Nation, also known as Oxford House. Many in the remote northern Manitoba community are fluent speakers, he said.
“It’s actually pretty common, especially with youth” he said. “I think it has something to do with how kind of closed off we are from the rest of the province, because it’s a fly-in community.”
Now in his second year of university, he doesn’t speak Cree as much as he used to, but said there are advantages to being the only student in a class.
“I would reach out to Ken when I needed to, if I didn’t really understand something,” Robinson said.
He hopes to teach Cree himself someday, which is what inspired him to take the course.
“I want to be knowledgeable and confident in teaching it.”
Both he and his instructor offer the same advice to other language learners.
“Don’t be afraid to try and speak the language,” said Paupanekis.
Robinson agrees, even though he notes that if you’re one letter off in a word, it can change the entire meaning.
But “when you learn to understand more, you find the funniness in it,” he said.
“People shouldn’t really worry about being teased [for making mistakes], because it’s not that they’re teasing you — it’s just a silly language to learn. And it’s fun.”