(Mani-utenam) Can music help reverse the decline of Indigenous languages? Innu from Uashat mak Mani-utenam think so. La Presse went to meet them on the North Shore.

There are a lot of people today at the Makusham studio, located behind Florent Vollant’s house in Mani-utenam, 15 minutes east of Sept-Îles. About twenty children aged 10 to 12 are lined up in relative order in front of the choir director Mathilde Côté. They come from the communities of Uashat and Mani-utenam and, in preparation for a concert at the next Festival en chanson de Petite-Vallée, they are rehearsing a Kashtin anthem that they love, Tshinanu.

The little voices rise, not all sure of themselves in the verses, but more confident in the chorus, where they make pretty waves. Some stumble over words, others take deep breaths and sing with shining eyes. What they are doing is not trivial: most of them understand Innu-aimun, the language of their people, but they don’t speak it at home.

They sing to pay homage to Florent Vollant, the most universally known Innu singer outside of Indigenous communities. In doing so, they also speak their language. “Singing helps you better understand words and how to pronounce them,” says Anaïs Rock, 11, whose mother speaks Innu-Aimun, but who speaks French in everyday life with his family and friends. Like the majority of children of his generation.

Innu-Aimun was one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages ​​in Quebec about 10 years ago, but is now in decline, said Marjolaine Tshernish, executive director of the Tshakapesh Institute. This organization, which has a storefront in Uashat, a reserve located within the limits of Sept-Îles, is dedicated to promoting the Innu language and culture.

There are places, especially in isolated communities, where it is still very present, even among the youngest, underlines Marjolaine Tshernish, but this is not the rule for Innu-Aimun, as for the majority of languages. aboriginals in Quebec. “We see that there are fewer and fewer children who speak it,” she said. In Mashteuiatsh, there are less than 14% speakers and in Essipit, there are none left. Here in Uashat mak Mani-utenam, we still have time to transmit the language and to transmit it well. »

The Tshakapesh Institute is working hard in this direction. In addition to establishing dictionaries, offering online tools and supporting initiatives in the various communities, it organizes knowledge transmission activities (crafts, knife making, etc.) given by elders who also serve transmission belt of the Innu-Aimun. “The language experts are them,” says Marjolaine Tshernish.

“When we say that the language is losing ground, we mean it. I get chills just talking about it,” admits Mathieu Mckenzie. The energetic co-owner of the Makusham studio does not sit idly by in the face of this observation. With his wife, Nelly Jourdain, president of the Makusham Musique label, and several allies, he began a fight to have the CRTC impose a 5% quota for Indigenous music on commercial radio stations in the country. He is convinced that music is a valuable asset in preserving and even revitalizing endangered indigenous languages.

“Hearing music in our languages, it nourishes, it gives vitamins”, illustrates Elisapie, who has been singing mainly in Inuktitut for 20 years.

Shauit, who has just released a record with trad sounds, also owes a debt of gratitude to Florent Vollant, since he also learned his language with the songs of Kashtin, a duo formed by Claude Mckenzie and Florent Vollant who was immensely popular everywhere. in Quebec at the turn of the 1990s. “I asked my mother to write me the words in Innu,” he recalls. I didn’t even ask him to translate them, I wanted to be able to pronounce them to sing the songs, to have the impression of speaking in Innu. »

Florent Vollant welcomes this kind of testimony with great humility. “I didn’t do it for that, I sang in Innu for me, for those around me,” he says, in his soft voice, sitting in a loveseat in his studio. If others have learned the language with it, so much the better. I will have been used for something other than what I thought: I wanted to make the world dance. »

Three decades later, he is concerned about the state of the language. He knows families where the bond is broken: the grandparents only speak Innu-Aimun and the grandchildren only French. His own grandchildren speak little of the language of their ancestors. ” It’s dramatic. By losing the language, we lose a lot, he judges. As for Innu, there is a revival, but will that be enough to keep the language alive? »

Hearing songs in Indigenous languages ​​isn’t just for listening. “It plays an important role because it is identity, underlines Marjolaine Tshernish. It is also a great pride, that of getting along. This is not a detail when you come from a people who live with the trauma of the residential school system where their language and culture were devalued with the avowed aim of assimilating it.

“It caused a loss of identity,” notes Nelly Jourdain, who was responsible for language and culture at the Mani-utenam school before devoting herself to Makusham Musique. “I said to my team: if young people don’t rediscover the pride of being Innu, they won’t understand the importance of the language. Even if they are taught at school, they will only see it as a lesson like any other. »

Reconnecting young people to the territory during outings accompanied by elders was a step forward, according to her. Spreading the language through the music is another. A good example is Laurence Jourdain, 12, Nelly’s niece, who caught the virus when she learned a song in her language. In June, she will be in Laval for the pan-Quebec meeting of Secondaire en spectacle where she will sing Uasset. Another Kashtin song.

“Tshinanu ui tshissenitau / tshinanu uauapatetau / Tshinanu thimeshkanaminu,” sing the still not quite comfortable voices at the Makusham studio. They say, “Together we want to know / Together we want to see / Find the way.” You have to see them raise their heads when they repeat “tshinanu, tshinanu” (together, together). This word will have a special resonance in Petite-Vallée at the end of June: the children of Uashat mak Mani-utenam will sing there surrounded by more than 200 little Gaspésiens who have also specially learned songs in Innu-aïmun. A big step for all of them and a small step for reconciliation.

For a long time, we counted the Aboriginal artists known outside the communities on the fingers of one hand: Kashtin, Florent Vollant, Claude McKenzie, Samian and Elisapie. Borders are no longer so watertight and artists from different nations are now attracting attention beyond the circles to which they seemed confined.

Talking for nothing is not Florent Vollant’s style. He says it himself: if what you have to say is not more important than silence, you shut up. A lesson learned a long time ago in the forest, he says, comfortably installed in his studio in Mani-utenam.

His thrifty way allows him to see things come from afar, we see, when we think back to his word of thanks when he received the very first Félix given to the Aboriginal artist of the year, in 2019. “Thank you to ADISQ for making this place for us,” he began. Have no fear, we’ll take it. Four years later, his prediction is coming true.

In recent years, an unprecedented number of artists from one or other of the 11 nations established in Quebec have released records that shine beyond the usual Aboriginal circuits. We are far from the phenomenal success of Kashtin, at the turn of the 1990s, but the Laura Niquay, Kanen, Shauit, Matiu, Scott-Pien Picard and Arachnid nevertheless attract growing attention outside the communities.

“It wasn’t like that when I started in 2018,” observes Scott-Pien Picard, a native of Uashat, an Innu reserve that lies within the city limits of Sept-Îles. “We weren’t many and I didn’t really play in Quebec, just in the communities. No one knew us. Now it begins. »

Talking about a rise in indigenous music is strange in the eyes of artists from these communities. This cultural ferment that overflows outside the reserves, they were already aware of it. “It’s always been there, it’s just that we didn’t have room,” said Elisapie, one of the few artists known to a wide audience for nearly 20 years. “Indigenous artists took the plunge as soon as a little openness was felt. »

“We were already doing everything we do now, but in the communities, which form a parallel network. This market is not governed like the Quebec music industry,” says Nelly Jourdain, director of Makusham Musique, a production company based in Mani-utenam and linked to the studio of the same name. The circuit of communities, which goes from one end of Quebec to the other in the North, seems well established: several have the structures to adequately accommodate artists, often hired directly by the band council.

Maten has been “well established” in this network for 25 years. The Mani-utenam group plays everywhere on the North Shore, on Innu territory, but also among the Crees and the Atikamekw. “When we go to the Crees, sometimes we do four villages in eight days, says Samuel Pinette, its main singer. It’s a real network where people talk to each other. »

Nelly Jourdain now sees a change in the Quebec industry, citing, among other things, the example of non-Aboriginal record companies that produce at least one Aboriginal artist. “We’re also making our way by launching our own label,” she says.

Professional structures like Makusham Music were needed to support this emergence, thinks Joëlle Robillard. Nikamowin (Nomade Music), the organization she runs, also contributes to this structuring by offering support to artists, but by transporting a mobile studio to the different communities, according to her. Which makes him say that the movement that is currently taking shape is also the fruit of “years of substantive work on the ground”.

The existence of these structures might not change much without one key ingredient: a change in mindset. “People want to understand, they’re sensitive, they’re curious,” says Maten bassist Kim Fontaine.

Kanen, who lives in Montreal, also feels very strongly this curiosity and this need to understand, which she links, among other things, to the fact that the tragedies of residential schools, of Aboriginal women killed or missing and the death of Joyce Echaquan have become subjects of Company.

“The death of Joyce Echaquan has not only shaken us, the Aboriginal people, but all of Quebec”, also notes Elisapie.

Kanen adds that this movement that carries Indigenous musicians is not limited to music. She names Caroline Monnet (cinema and visual arts), Émilie Monnet (theater), Natasha Kanapé Fontaine (poetry, slam, song) and Naomi Fontaine, whose novel Kuessipan has just been transposed on stage at Duceppe, the largest theater in city. “I’m happy to be part of that movement,” she said. I am proud of my colleagues. »

Much remains to be done to translate curiosity into genuine connections. Presenters and festivals must program these artists. Mathieu Mckenzie, Maten member and head of programming (booking) at Makusham Music, points out that travel costs to major cities are a barrier for artists living in communities. They must also be heard by a wider audience, hence this official request made in March to the CRTC to impose a quota of 5% of Indigenous music on the country’s radio stations.

The conditions are met for a real meeting to take place, believes Mathieu Mckenzie. “The time is now. Not 5 or 10 years ago. We weren’t ready, he said. There, everyone is ready, on both sides. »

Here is a list of songs concocted from suggestions by Samian, Émile Bilodeau, Nelly Jourdain (Makusham Musique), the Nikamowin-Musique nomade team (Sabrina Fontaine, Maude Meilleur, Akawui and Joëlle Robillard), as well as journalists from La Press. Good listening !