Print Culture in AlbertaWhen Oblate Father Emile Grouard came to the Canadian Northwest in the mid-19th century, he set out to make the Catholic faith more accessible to the First Nations people. One result was a prayer book in Cree in the 1880s, the first book ever published in Alberta. Now Grouard’s book has been re-published in English translation accompanied by the original Cree. Under the direction of Linda Cameron, the University of Alberta Press last month unveiled The Beginning of Print Culture in Athabasca Country. Patricia Demers, an English professor at the University of Alberta, was at St. Bernard’s Mission in Grouard about eight years ago. She saw a syllabery on the rectory wall, which outlined all of the syllabics – geometric figures that represent vowel and consonant combinations. She also found a 224-page prayer book printed in the same language. She found out that it had been printed on a printing press that the Oblate missionary, Bishop Emile Grouard, had brought from France in 1881. He actually didn’t print it until 1883.

It turns out that his book was the first book ever printed on a printing press in Alberta,” said Naomi McIlwraith, a poet who writes in both Cree and English, and is an advisor to aboriginal studies at Grant MacEwan University.

Bishop Grouard spent a decade at Fort Chipewyan and then, after a brief convalescence, returned to the Canadian West, bringing with him a small hand printing press. He served as bishop for northern Alberta and much of the Northwest Territories from 1890 until his death in 1929.

He set out to print in the language of his mission almost as soon as he arrived. Among the first fruits of his endeavours was this prayer book in Cree syllabics, a unique writing system developed specifically for use in western Canada. The fact Alberta’s first book was not in English, French, Spanish, or any common language, but in an indigenous language, has great historical significance. Grouard had an aptitude for languages. During his long life in the West, he learned to speak several First Nations languages fluently, keeping meticulous notes of his work.

There is a lot of legitimate frustration and anger about the residential schools, and that’s where a lot of the native languages were lost,” said McIlwraith. But someone like Grouard, he didn’t do that. He was so interested in them and respected them that he learned five aboriginal languages. I think there are a lot of stories to be told about the peaceful relationship between the different native people who were teaching him their language.

More than a century later, his book has been translated into English. The translation of the text was a collaborative effort, involving Demers, McIlwraith and Dorothy Thunder, a Cree-language specialist from the faculty of native studies.

Demers also wrote the introduction, and Arok Wolvengrey wrote the foreword. All of the partners involved brought a needed gift or talent to the process. The result is a 450-page, coffee table-style book with digital images of Grouard’s original with English translations and transliteration into Roman orthography. The book also contains photos of Grouard, his printing press and maps of where he worked in Alberta.

I realized about two years ago that I was a part of making history here because Cree has only been written for about 160 years or so,” said McIlwraith. Some people will debate that quite vehemently, but there’s a really good thesis supporting that claim. Since it’s only been written that long, we are still dealing with issues on how to standardize the writing of it.

The literal English translation of the prayers provides readers with a fascinating glimpse of how Grouard learned the nuances of the language as well as the culture of the people he came to serve. The book’s appearance is testament to the dedicated work and study conducted at two different eras of western Canada. Its existence is testament to the importance of the Cree language, in both the late 19th century and today. The book will appeal to churches, university libraries, native studies departments, linguists and historians, said McIlwraith.

At the June 24, 2011 book launch, held at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, Father Jim Holland from Sacred Heart Parish led a prayer and the Thundering Spirit Cultural Society performed a bracing honour song.

by Chris Miller for the Western Catholic Reporter

See photos and more on the U of A’s blog There’s a Hole in the Bucket.

See more details about the The Beginnings of Print Culture in Athbasca County and order online.