Marguerite MacKenzie, winner of the 2013 Insight Award, had the chance, in the early 1970s, to live with a Cree family in northern Quebec, near Mistissini, for several months.
“We lived in a tent and people trapped beaver and hunted caribou,” she said. “Once you know the traditional life, you really want to do anything you can to maintain it.”
MacKenzie, linguistics professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has spent over 40 years learning and working to preserve the Innu language.
Her research project, Knowledge and Human Resources for Innu Language Development, paved the way for the Innu Language Project, which published the first Innu-English-French dictionary. With over 27,000 words, the pan-Innu dictionary is considered the most thorough and complete dictionary of an Algonquian language to date.
“It will engender pride in the language,” said MacKenzie. “People speak it at home, but at school they see all these wonderful books in English or French, and there are no equivalents in their own language.”
MacKenzie said about 18,000 people in Quebec and Labrador speak the Innu language, called Innu-aimun. MacKenzie first started studying the related dialect of East Cree in northern Quebec in 1968, and went on to work with speakers of Innu and Naskapi in a teacher training program.
“One of our projects was to make a small dictionary for each community, just to practice writing and translating into English,” said MacKenzie.
In the following decades, Innu-French dictionaries were produced for several communities in Quebec, one by dictionary co-editor José Mailhot, but these did not meet the needs of all speakers, especially those in Labrador, who use English as a second language. Thirty years later, with SSHRC funding and a joint partnership between the linguistics department at Memorial University, linguists at Carleton University, the Université du Québec à Montréal, Labrador’s Mamu Tshishkutamashutau Innu Education School Board, and the Quebec Innu organization Institut Tshakapesh, MacKenzie and her collaborators built on these previous works to compile a comprehensive dictionary accessible to Innu people in both provinces and in all three languages.
The dictionary is available both online and in print, and features audio samples and illustrations. The Innu Language Project provides language training and workplace-specific glossaries to help address the lack of trained Innu interpreters in the health, environmental and legal fields. MacKenzie said the project has also developed elementary school curriculum materials, including over 40 Innu-aimun children’s readers.
MacKenzie said preserving the language is especially important for future generations.
“If a child goes to school not knowing any Innu, this child will be increasingly cut off from important parts of her heritage,” she said. “She may not be able to speak to her grandparents or her older relatives who do not speak English as a first language. She will not be able to access the rich vocabulary that describes the world from an Innu point of view. Many elders are just desperate to pass on their knowledge to younger people, but younger people aren’t necessarily ready to hear it.”
MacKenzie and her research team are in the final stages of editing a glossary of Innu medical terms. They are also developing mobile Innu dictionary apps for smartphones and tablets, and are working on additional children’s books and online interactive language exercises.