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La Loche, Sask., residents fear loss of Dene language and culture

By MATT KRUCHAK
CBC NEWS

March 29, 2016 – Residents still coping with school shooting say Dene culture is fading quicker than ever.

Donovan Fontaine and his young son peered into the hole in the ice as he fed the fishing line into the cold, dark water below. The pair exchanged warm smiles as the sun shone on the snow-covered lake.

The wind was light that unseasonably balmy day at the end of February in northern Saskatchewan — the perfect day for a father and son to spend fishing together on Lac La Loche. Nearby, other fathers and their children huddled over holes in the ice and spoke Dene.

It’s a scene that has played out for generations. From this fishing spot, the village of La Loche looked like Lego blocks on the horizon, bookended by the northern boreal forest.

Fishing, hunting and spending time outdoors is important to the Dene community, about 605 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. So is their language.

Many residents, however, feel their traditional ways are fading quicker than ever with the influence of technology on the village and its young people, who have had plenty of struggles to contend with already — from social issues to a lack of resources to coming to grips with a fatal school shooting earlier this year that made international headlines.

Fontaine was out on the ice hoping to catch a couple of fish with his son, though his purpose was deeper. The bond between father and son on that ice-covered lake skipped a generation.

“I had a father, but he never was around,” the 31-year-old said.

Fontaine never learned to fish or hunt. He’s now instructing himself so he can teach his kids what his father failed to show him, and to lead them down a positive path. Fontaine travelled a rough road, one that included drugs, drinking, and gangs. Then he spent half his life behind bars.

However, things are different for Fontaine now that he’s been out of jail for five years and has a family. He knows one thing.

“I will never leave my kids.”

Language gives sense of pride

Dene words left the lips of Wilinda Sylvester and were broadcast to radio listeners around the village of slightly more than 2,600 people. On air, the radio host on CHPN 89.9 FM, the “Dene voice of La Loche,” moves with ease between English and her first language.

“I’m proud that I was taught the Dene language,” said Sylvester, as she sat in the radio station’s studio on the second floor of the town’s arena.

While First Nations languages have been lost in communities across Canada, the Dene language, also known as Denesuliné, remains strong in the community because of its remoteness and isolation. It wasn’t until 1962-63 that a road south was built, and TV didn’t arrive in the community until 1976.

Another reason you’ll hear people in La Loche speak Dene at the grocery store, gas station or to each other on the street is the radio station’s presence and role in the village, Sylvester said.

“The station is a big priority to the community,” she said. “It’s the middle of it.”

When someone in La Loche dies or if there’s a tragic event like a house fire, the radio station runs auctions to raise money for the impacted families. Every day, between 400 and 500 people follow along on the radio and play bingo, she said. When the village was evacuated last year during forest fire season, the station stayed open.

Kayla Ponicappo is a high school student who works at the station and has grown up speaking the language.

“It’s really important. We speak Dene at home all day, and everywhere we go in town we just speak it; even on the radio everyday,” the 16-year-old said.

“I don’t want to lose that culture ever.”

READ FULL ARTICLE:La Loche, Sask., residents fear loss of Dene language and culture“. CBC NEWS. N. p., 2016. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.

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