Linguistic defender

Danette Dooley
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MUN prof’s work preserving Innu language up for national award

A Memorial University professor and her team of researchers are finalists for a prestigious national award in recognition of their work preserving the Innu language.

Marguerite MacKenzie, a professor of linguistics in Memorial’s faculty of arts, has been working with aboriginal communities for 40 years. Her research focuses on protecting and promoting the Innu, Cree and Naskapi languages.

MacKenzie’s research team collaborated with researchers at Carleton University as well as private researchers, government departments and aboriginal partners.

Their work has led to the creation of dictionaries, workplace vocabularies, readers for schools and language-learning material for adults.

MacKenzie also helped develop culturally relevant teaching resources, including a place-names website for use in elementary and secondary schools.

During a recent telephone interview from Ottawa, where she is forging ahead with her research, MacKenzie said aboriginal languages are being lost at an alarming rate throughout North America.

“The aboriginal communities really have to fight hard to keep speaking their own language because everything that’s coming in from the outside is either in English or French. And they are certainly finding that children coming to kindergarten speak much more English than they did 15 years ago,” she said.

MacKenzie said the native languages allow access to a range of knowledge and world views which are different than those of European origin.

“Language is infinitely important for encapsulating cultural values and passing them on. It’s important to people’s identity as well,” she said.

MacKenzie and her team are finalists for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Award. The award is given to an individual or team whose project has resulted in significant contribution to knowledge and understanding about people, societies and the world.

The researchers have developed a comprehensive pan-Innu dictionary, covering all the Innu dialects spoken in Quebec and Labrador. Published in Innu, English and French, the piece of work is touted as one of the most thorough and complete dictionaries of an aboriginal language.

MacKenzie says the dictionary stemmed from a French dictionary that was made for one Innu village in Quebec.

“I worked with a woman who lives in Montreal, a private researcher. We took other dictionaries that had been made in the past. … We combined the old dictionaries and had them retyped and put into a database.”

MacKenzie and her team contacted Innu elders to verify the pronunciation and meanings of the words.

Jose Mailhot edited the dictionary which is online at the Innu language website (

This website is the result of a partnership between Memorial’s linguistics department, the School of Linguistics and Language Studies at Carleton University, the Labrador Innu School Board (Mamu Tshishkutamashutau — Innu Education) and the Quebec Innu organization Institut Tshakapesh.

As the site indicates, the website celebrates the Innu language and culture and is a place to share Innu language resources created under the auspices of the Innu Language Project.

The dictionary can also be ordered through

MacKenzie and her team of researchers have also developed specialized vocabularies for criminal law, family law, environmental impact assessment terms and teaching terms. A medical glossary will soon be printed as well as mobile apps for smartphones and tablets for the Innu dictionary and the medical glossary.

One of the things I’m doing here in Ottawa is we are getting near to finishing the app for the iPad and Android devices so that people will be able to look things up on their mobile devices.”

Richard Marceau, vice-president (research) at Memorial University, said in a press release that MacKenzie is an excellent candidate for the SSHRC Insight Award.

“Her research on endangered aboriginal languages has safeguarded the significant and extensive Innu cultural and linguistic heritage, and by working closely with aboriginal communities, she has created resources that are immensely useful for those community members.”

Leslie Brown, University of Victoria, and Thomas Lemieux, University of British Columbia, are the other finalists for the award. The winner will be awarded $50,000 to further their research.

The awards will be presented at a ceremony at the World Social Science Forum in Montreal, Que., on Oct. 15.

Organizations: Carleton University, SSHRC, School of Linguistics and Language Studies Labrador Innu School Board Innu Education University of Victoria University of British Columbia World Social Science Forum

Geographic location: Ottawa, Quebec, North America Montreal Labrador

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