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Living language

Innu-aimun project receives President's Award for public engagement

By Janet Harron

The Innu Language Project has been named the recipient of the 2019 President’s Award for Public Engagement Partnership.

From left are Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie and Kanani Penashue-Davis.
From left are Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie and Kanani Penashue Davis.
Photo: Submitted

A continuing partnership between Memorial University and Mamu Tshishkutamashutau/Innu Education (MTIE), the Labrador Innu School Board, the Innu Language Project has, over the course of 15 years, engaged with a variety of Indigenous, governmental, non-governmental and academic institutions with the common goal of maintaining Innu-aimun as a living language passed on from one generation to the next.

The primary research carried out by Innu Language Project has resulted in applications that enable communities to speak Innu in modern settings including courts, health centres, hospitals and at public meetings.

‘Continue our partnership’

“Innu-aimun is such an important part of our lives, especially now where we see a decline in the oral Innu-aimun language,” said Kanani Penashue Davis, director, administration and finances, MTIE. “Our children are picking up more English than they ever did before. We want to be able to teach Innu-aimun in Sheshathsiu and Natuashish schools.”

Directed by Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie, professor emeritus, Department of Linguistics, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and funded by a number of Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council research projects over the past decade, the Innu Language Project is a model university/community partnership that features mutual benefits, inclusiveness and diversity, responsiveness and a responsibility to place and to learners.

‘Productive collaboration’

“The past 15 years of highly productive collaboration between Labrador and Quebec Innu organizations and the linguistic teams here at Memorial and Carleton have resulted in significant documentation of the language and online tools for ensuring its survival,” said Dr. MacKenzie.

“Students at Memorial have been trained in book production, digitization, documentary techniques and archiving, while students in the Innu communities have been provided with materials for both literacy and language learning.”

“Partnering with Dr. MacKenzie has helped Mamu Tshishkutamashutau/Innu Education tremendously in developing Innu-aimun materials in the written standard spelling,” said Ms. Davis. “We hope to continue our partnership with Memorial University and the Department of Linguistics. There is still so much more work to be done.”

Trilingual dictionary

Dr. MacKenzie credits her close collaboration with and support from the directors of the Mamu Tshishkutamashutau/Innu Education for making a positive difference to the education of Innu youth.

Among the many achievements of the Innu Language Project are a four-volume, 27,000-item trilingual pan-Innu dictionary, which has contributed greatly to curriculum creation and teacher training.

Glossaries for criminal and family law, environmental impact assessment terms and medical and cancer terminology have also been created. All materials are accessible online and sound files are widely available for language learners.

The Innu Language Project is also a key contributor to an award-winning website documenting traditional Innu Nation place names.

Through the Innu Language Project’s activities, younger speakers have been mentored by elders, Indigenous students have been hired as research assistants and graduate students have been trained to work in a responsible, respectful and ethical manner with Indigenous communities.

Requests continue to arrive from Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups for assistance with language projects, which bodes well for a strong, healthy, mutually beneficial relationship between the Innu Nation and Memorial University.

More information on the award and previous winners of the President’s Award for Public Engagement Partnerships can be found here.

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