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Celebrating the ‘Dictionary Ladies’ of St. Laurent

A trio of Métis Grandmothers and Knowledge Keepers received Honorary Doctorates in June 2020. (photo supplied)

The University of Winnipeg is proud to bestow upon Lorraine Coutu-Lavallee, June Bruce, and Agathe Chartrand each an Honorary Doctor of Letters. The trio was honoured at a Special Convocation during a Graduation Acknowledgement Ceremony hosted virtually by the Manitoba Metis Federation.

Coutu-Lavallee, Bruce, and Chartrand are Métis Grandmothers and Knowledge Keepers known as the respected ‘Dictionary Ladies’ of St. Laurent, an historic Métis community on the eastern shore of Lake Manitoba. It is a matrilineal community, with mothers and grandmothers taking a leadership role in passing down its customs.

Along with Doris Mikolayenko-Leclerc and Patricia Miller-Chartrand, who have since passed away, they took it upon themselves to protect, promote, and preserve their ancestral language and culture, creating the first Michif French dictionary as it is spoken in St. Laurent.

The dictionary includes both an alphabetical and thematic organization of words, as well as a few chosen recipes and prayers. It is an ideal dictionary for beginner and intermediate learners who want to explore Michif French. It was self-published in 2016 through McNally Robinson booksellers.

“UWinnipeg has a deep commitment to preserving Indigenous languages, in both our academic and community outreach programs,” said Dr. Annette Trimbee, UWinnipeg President and Vice-Chancellor. “Speaking Indigenous languages, like Michif, is vital to understanding the worldview and customs of Métis, First Nations and Inuit cultures.” 

In addition to their dictionary, they created a curriculum to teach Michif language and culture in St. Laurent schools. They also teach Michif to younger children, through games and activities in the preschool Head Start program.

They keep their culture alive for a wider audience as well. As cultural advisors, translators and coaches, they’ve played an important role in the new, dramatic musical Riel: Heart of the North, by Métis poet Suzanne Steele-Gaudry and composer Neil Weisensel.

“June, Agathe, and Lorraine have voluntarily taken on the role of community educators,” said Trimbee. “Their perseverance and generosity of spirit in keeping Michif language and culture alive and thriving for future generations is the very heart of serving community. We are honoured that they are joining the UWinnipeg family.”

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