Cree language on city signs a possibility

The City of Thompson’s planning and development department will be considering the inclusion of the Cree language on city signs during its current re-branding initiative, director of city planning and development Matthew Boscariol says.

Cree has made its appearances in the city before: the circular signs which once welcomed motorists driving into Thompson, both from Highway 391 and Highway 6, once included both “Welcome” and “Tansi,” as does the sign welcoming motorists downtown at the intersection of Mystery Lake Road and Nelson Road. Many Thompson streets have Cree names, such as Manasan, meaning, essentially, “beautiful place.”

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But these names are written solely in Roman characters, and Thompson resident Hilda Rose-Fitzner noted that only three public buildings currently featured signs written in Cree syllabics: the liquor store, the RCMP station and the hospital.

“What kind of message does that send?” she asked.

Rose-Fitzner floated the idea on the community Facebook page Thompson Talk. The gesture would be both a symbolic and a practical one: Thompson rests within Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation’s traditional territory, a legacy that Rose-Fitzner believes is important to honour. But she also notes that while few Thompsonites may live their lives in Cree, there are many in surrounding communities for whom Cree is a first language. “If you step into Nelson House, you’re going to hear Cree first. When things happen in town, they want to come here. By acknowledging Cree people and putting up a few signs here and there, they’re going to feel more welcome here.”

Rose-Fitzner particularly spoke of youth: while members of the older generations of northern First Nations speak primarily Cree, many aboriginal millenials have become isolated from the language, increasing the sense of isolation and otherness which draws wayward youth to crime, substance abuse and suicide. She recalled discussions surrounding the development of student housing for University College of the North, where it was understood that the majority of tenants would be aboriginal: “I was seeing people blame the indigenous for all the crime and gang activity in the city. My message was, if you want to get rid of gang activity, you have to include the people.”

Cree signage, Rose-Fitzner says, would go a long way in making Cree residents and visitors feel at home and welcome. She notes that the impact of the gesture can’t be underestimated, citing the popularity of Wapanohk Community School with indigenous parents: “Any indigenous people moving into town, they want their kids in that school. You can really see a lot of our indigenous culture there.”

A significant criticism of Rose-Fitzner’s original suggestion was cost, with many Thompsonites concerned on the impact such projects might have on the city mill rate. But Boscariol noted that the suggestion comes at an ideal time, when major changes in the city’s brand mean that a significant portion of signage will have to be replaced one way or another: “Grants aside,” he notes, “the city is going through a re-branding strategy to ensure that all signage gets phased in, and with that in mind, we’d be able to put the language there as we phase it in.” Street signs, he noted, could also be phased in at minimal cost, as they must be regularly replaced due to wear and tear regardless of any design changes.
The concept remains in its early stages, and has not been submitted for any formal consideration by the city’s development review committee. Nonetheless, Boscariol assures the idea will be reviewed in due time. “We’re so embedded in the cultural practices of the Cree here, that I just see it as a natural thing to do.”

Beyond the municipal government, Rose-Fitzner also challenges local businesses to adopt multilingual signage, citing the economic contribution of indigenous shoppers from outlying communities. “I would like to be able to be able to total the amount of money that comes through our malls on a child tax credit day. The TEDWG process recognizes Thompson and region, because they recognize that businesses can thrive here because of the outlying region.” Rose-Fitzner suggested that even a sign reading “Welcome,” “Tansi” and Cree syllabics would be a “warm thank you to the people.”

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