The Heritage of Métis Language in Western Canada

par Papen, Robert A.

The flag of Canada’s Métis

The second half of the 18th century saw the emergence of two distinct communities in the fur trade territories known as the Pays d’en haut: the French-speaking Métis and the English-speaking Métis known as “halfbreeds.” Both communities were born of the unions of aboriginal women and white men. The French or English that Métis children learned from their fathers evolved over time to give rise to two local dialects: French Michif and Bungee, a vernacular form of English. But these children had also learned their mother’s aboriginal languages. They would create a whole new language, Michif, a remarkable blend of French, Cree and Ojibwa. Today, this remarkable linguistic heritage is threatened with extinction.


Article disponible en français : Héritage linguistique des Métis de l'Ouest Canadien

An Endangered Linguistic Heritage

Lake Manitoba

The Métis—also called the Michif, a local pronunciation of the older “Métif,” meaning “of mixed blood”—are one of Canada’s three aboriginal peoples, along with the Inuit and the First Nations. While there are Métis in every Canadian province, only those in western and northwestern Canada are officially recognized by the federal government.

Sadly, all three Métis language varieties spoken in western Canada are seriously threatened with extinction. French Michif is still spoken by some older Métis scattered throughout the region, but the only communities where it remains in any kind of regular use, at least among adults, are the village of St. Laurent and the neighbouring hamlet of St. Ambroise on the shores of Lake Manitoba. For more than a century teachers, missionaries and white francophones denigrated the “poor” French spoken by the Métis. Their often harsh criticism led many to abandon their native language and switch to English. Bungee has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared: Fewer than twelve speakers remain. As for Michif, the blended language, there is no known living speaker under the age of 60. Despite the best efforts of Métis social, cultural and political organizations—including annual conferences with Michif lessons; publication of children’s books, bilingual glossaries and other teaching materials—the language seems destined to disappear within a generation. One more irreplaceable linguistic treasure will then be lost for ever. 

A fourth Métis language probably once existed but is now completely forgotten. “Braillet” or “Braillette” (< “braguette”) was likely a blend of French and Ojibwa spoken in Métis communities around the Great Lakes, such as Sault Ste. Marie, and further west in Lake of the Woods (NOTE 1). Surviving writings mention this French-Ojibwa language spoken in the Great Lakes region (NOTE 2). However, we have no satisfactory bibliographic sources, historical evidence, or description of the language exist to confirm this hypothesis (NOTE 3).


Michif French

Historically, western Canada’s Métis communities were not the first such settlements. A number of small French-aboriginal communities had already been established around forts and trading posts in the Great Lakes region, notably at Michilimackinac, Detroit, Chicago, Sault Ste. Marie and, further south, Kaskaskia, Cahokia and Sainte Geneviève. Once distinctive communities, these settlements would be assimilated first by the British (after the Conquest of 1763) and later by the Americans.

The French that Métis children learned from their fathers was certainly not that of educated society, as most of the men were illiterate. Since young Métis received no formal instruction and were themselves illiterate, the vernacular they spoke developed independently, free of the regulatory and normalizing influence of schooling. As these children also learned their mother’s languages, most were bilingual with a marked preference for their aboriginal mother tongue. As a result, the influence of the aboriginal languages gradually permeated their French, with the addition of numerous grammatical traits and lexical items characteristic of the Algonquin languages. While it does share the fundamental features of French dialects spoken in the Saint Lawrence Valley, today’s Michif French is clearly distinct from other varieties of North American French.



Map showing Bungee-speaking areas in Manitoba

Bungee (also written “bungi”) is a type of English spoken in certain anglophone mixed-blood communities in the Red River Valley north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. This dialect has virtually disappeared: only a handful of very elderly speakers remain. Historically, most “half-breeds” were associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company which, for over a century, hired many Scots from the Orkney Islands, bilingual speakers of both English and Gaelic. Many of these men took wives among the Saulteaux and Cree. Their children learned English as well as their aboriginal mother tongue. When Manitoba joined confederation in 1870 the English-speaking Métis numbered around 5,000. The word “bungee” itself is derived from the Saulteaux word “panki” meaning “a little” or, “a portion of something.”

Bungee has been little studied (NOTE 4). According to some sources, this English dialect is heavily influenced by the Orkney and Scottish accents. The language consists of about 10% Cree or Saulteaux words as well as a few terms borrowed from French. Bungee is said to often substitute /s/ (as in “sip”) for /sh/ (as in “ship”), and vice versa. Words such as “shot,” “marsh,” “shallow,” “sure” and “she” would frequently be pronounced “sot,” “mars,” “sallow,” “sewer,” “sall” and “see;” conversely, words like “start,” “string” and “sell,” could be pronounced “shtart,” “shtring” and “shell” (Osborne, Scott and Mulligan, 1951). This phenomenon can be explained, as in Michif French, by the fact that the Cree language does not differentiate these consonants.



Michif is a distinct language consisting of a remarkable mixture of Michif French and Plains Cree, one of the Cree dialects. Michif is still spoken by a few hundred Métis in the United States, mostly around Turtle Mountain, N.D., and in western Canada.

A mixed-blood fur trader, 1870

While the growth of the Métis nation in the 18th and 19th centuries was closely linked to the fur trade, the gradual decline in fur-bearing animal populations forced the Métis to find other means of subsistence. They turned to hunting buffalo, then plentiful in the Prairies, and soon became the chief purveyors of pemmican (dried meat) to trading companies. Later, many became carters transporting goods throughout the West, on both sides of the Canada-US border.

While the historical record does not allow us to precisely date the emergence of Michif, the language was probably created by young Métis hunters beginning in the early19th century. Rather than returning home to the Red River Settlement at the season’s end, these hunters got into the habit of wintering in their hunting grounds, to the southeast. The surviving Michif-speaking communities can be found at the exact spots where these Métis hunters wintered: the confluence of the Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle rivers in Manitoba, the Qu’Appelle valley in Saskatchewan and the Grand Coteau du Missouri area in North Dakota (NOTE 5).

All existing historic accounts stress that the hunters were perfectly bilingual and often multilingual, speaking Saulteux, Assiniboine, Sioux, Cree and French. Naturally, a blended language such as Michif, which closely follows and scarcely alters the structures of its constituent languages, could only have been created by bilingual people. Today, however, most remaining Michif speakers speak fluent English, but have retained only a very limited knowledge of French.

Map showing Métis population distribution in Manitoba, 1959

Michif was always a “community” language, used exclusively by and among the members of a self-contained community. This containment explains how the language’s existence could go unnoticed for so long (the first written mention dates to the 20th century). Statistics Canada still does not include Michif on its list of aboriginal languages, and even experts on North American aboriginal languages refer to it only very rarely (NOTE 6)

In recent years Michif has attracted growing interest among Métis themselves. Formal recognition of the Métis nation in the 1982 Constitution of Canada spurred interest in Métis languages generally, and Michif in particular. Heritage Canada’s Aboriginal Languages Initiative, implemented in the late 20th century to protect and revitalize aboriginal languages, explicitly includes Michif.

In 2000, the Métis National Council, a pan-Canadian organization that claims to represent all Métis in Canada, voted at its Annual Meeting to make Michif the official and “historical” language of all Métis in Canada. This position is problematic. It is hard to consider Michif the “historical” language of the Métis as it was created in the early 19th century, several generations after the emergence of the Métis people. Another difficulty is Michif’s status, from its inception, as the language of the humbler ranks of the Métis people: wealthier Métis, and those employed in ranching and fishing rather than hunting and trapping, did not speak Michif. If there is a historical Métis language, it would surely be French (Michif) or English (Bungee). But for understandable reasons of ethnic identity, and because English and French are also Canada’s two official languages, neither can legitimately be considered as the “historical” language of the Métis. 

Banner of the 5th National Michif Conference

There is no way to accurately determine the total number of Michif speakers in Canada and the United States. In 1990 Peter Bakker put the number at between 200 and 1,000, with the vast majority over 60 years of age (NOTE 7). According to, there are 390 speakers in Canada. Other sources set the figure at 500, whereas the government of Saskatchewan claims 3,000 Michif speakers in Saskatchewan alone.

Poster advertising the 5th National Michif Conference

Even the name “Michif” creates confusion. Those who speak French Michif tend to refer to their variety of French as “Michif,” a term also used, naturally, by speakers of the blended language. This overlap makes it difficult to calculate the exact number of speakers of each variety. To further complicate matters, there is a variety of Cree spoken by Métis in the  Île-à-la-Crosse area of Northern Saskatchewan whose speakers also call their language “Michif.” This Cree dialect is heavily influenced by French and contains hundreds of French borrowed terms, but is structurally totally unlike Michif.

While we have not yet unlocked all the mysteries of Michif, we can still wonder at the genius of the Métis, that most dispossessed and overlooked of peoples. Without knowing it, they created a linguistic jewel of remarkable interest (NOTE 8). The Métis of Western Canada are blessed with a unique and rich linguistic heritage, a language that tells their story. Much has already been done to protect this linguistic treasure, but immense challenges remain for those who wish to keep it alive.


Robert A. Papen
Université du Québec à Montréal



1. Stobie (1970, 1971)

2. Peterson  (1981, quoted in Bakker, 1997, p. 269)

3. Bakker (1997)

4. See E. Blain and M. Stobie.

5. Bakker (1997)

6. See, for example, Foster (1982), Cook (1998) and Mithun (2001).

7. Bekker (1997)

8. For a more detailed account of Michif language see Papen (2005). 



Bakker, Peter, A language of our own. The genesis of Michif, the mixed Cree-French language of the Canadian Métis, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, 316 p. 

Bakker, Peter et Maarten Mous, Mixed languages. Fifteen case studies in language intertwining, Amsterdam, Institute for Functional Research in Language and Language Use, 1994.

Bakker, Peter et Pieter Muysken, « Mixed languages », in Jacques Arends, Pieter Muysken et Norval Smith (Dir.), Pidgins and creoles. An introduction
John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1994, pp. 41-52.

Barkwell, Lawrence (Dir.), La lawng : Michif peekishkwewin. The heritage language of the Canadian Metis. Vol. 1, Language practice, Winnipeg, Manitoba Metis Federation Michif Language Program, 2004, 86 p.

Barkwell, Lawrence (Dir.), La lawng : Michif peekishkwewin. The heritage language of the Canadian Metis. Vol. 2, Language theory, Winnipeg, Manitoba Metis Federation Michif Language Program, 2004, 136 p.

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Barkwell, Lawrence, Leah Dorion et Darren R. Préfontaine, (Dir.), Metis legacy.Volume II,  Michif culture, heritage and folkways, Winnipeg, Pemmican Publications, 255 p.

Blain, Eleanor, « Speech of the lower Red River settelement », in William Cowen (Dir.), Papers of the Eighteenth Algonquian Conference, Ottawa, Carleton University, 1987, pp. 7-16.

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Foster, Michael K., « Canada’s indigenous languages : Present and future », Language and Society, 7, 1982, pp. 7-16.

Gaborieau, Antoine, La langue de chez nous, Saint-Boniface, MB, Éditions des Plaines,  1999, 286 p. 

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Papen, Robert A., « La variation dialectale dans le parler français des Métis de l’Ouest canadien », Francophonies d’Amérique, 3, 1993, pp. 25-38.

Papen,  Robert A., « « Sur quelques aspects structuraux du français des Métis de l’Ouest canadien », in Aidan Coveney, Marie-Anne Hintze et Carol Sanders (Dir.), Variation et francophonie, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2004a, pp. 105-129.

Papen, Robert A., « La diversité des parlers français de l’Ouest canadien : mythe ou réalité? », in Robert A. Papen (Dir.), Les parlers français de l’Ouest canadien, Cahiers franco-canadiens de l’Ouest, 16, 2004b, pp. 13-52.

Papen, Robert A., « Michif spelling conventions : Proposal for a Unified Writing System », in Lawrence Barkwell (Dir.), La lawng : Michif peekishkwewin. The heritage language of the Canadian Metis, vol. 2 : Language theory, Winnipeg, Manitoba Metis Federation Michif Language Program, 2004c,  pp. 29-53

Papen, Robert A., « Le michif: langue franco-crie des Plaines ». In Albert Valdman, Julie Auger et Dianne Piston-Hatlen (dir.), Le français en Amérique du Nord : état présent. Saint-Nicolas, QC, Presses de l’Université Laval, 2005, pp.327-347.

Payment, Diane, « Plains Métis », in Raymond J. de Mallie et William C. Sturtevant (Dir.), Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 13, 1re partie, Washington, DC, Smithsonian Institute, 2001, pp. 666-676.

Peterson, Jacqueline, « The people in between : Indian-white marriage and the genesis of a Métis society and culture in the Great Lakes region, 1630-1830 ». Thèse de doctorat, University of Illinois, Chicago, 1981.

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Stobie, Margaret, « Bungi – Sound of history », Winnipeg Free Press, 13 juillet, 1971.

Stobie, Margaret, « The dialect called Bungi », Canadian Antiques Collector, 6, 8, pp. 20.


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