A Life's Story
March 23, 2019
Patsy Millar's fierce love for unique language survived cultural bullying; preservation was her passion
By: Melissa Martin
All her life, Patricia Millar believed the language she’d grown up with was precious. She held onto it even after nuns from the east tried to suppress it: it was the language of her parents, of her community on the shores of Lake Manitoba and of the Métis homeland whose history is inextricably intertwined with the province’s own.
Eventually, Millar would make it her life’s work to help preserve the dwindling Michif-French language. So when she died Jan. 31 at age 72, she left behind a remarkable trove of resources capturing not only the spirit of her mother tongue, but also the life and traditions of the community that bore it.
Patsy, as everyone called her, was raised in a big Métis family in St. Laurent. She was the youngest of Ludovic and Maggie Chartrand’s 14 children, though in the spartan days of the early 20th century only 11 survived to adulthood. Theirs was a traditional life: Maggie ran the farm while Ludovic was off working as a hunting guide and fisher.
The family spoke only Michif French, the unique Métis language rooted in the St. Laurent area. As a child, Patsy attended the Simonet mission school on the south edge of town; the nuns who taught there, mostly from Quebec, disciplined the kids for speaking "dirty" Michif, instead of what they considered "proper" French.
That early struggle set the stage for Patsy’s life’s work to preserve the language. The nuns told her she was "stupid" for not knowing French, she told her daughter later, and it was her mission to prove them wrong. In time, she would make prolific contributions to the invaluable world of Michif language resources.
Her family came first. One night in 1963, at the dance hall in St. Laurent, the teen met a young musician named Raymond Millar, who lived just up the road in Oak Point. She was shy, he remembers, and said she didn’t speak English very well, though he never noticed. They fell in love and married two years later.
The couple had three kids, sons Warren and Duane and then, after a seven-year gap, daughter Crystal. The latter was born while Patsy was in university: she’d always told Raymond she wanted to be a teacher, so when the boys were old enough, she followed that dream back to school.
After graduating, she would spend the rest of her life in education. She taught at the tiny Oak Point school until 1989, serving as principal there, and when that school amalgamated, she transferred to teach in St. Laurent. At night, she would correct schoolwork while her kids were at dance or hockey practice.
There was always something happening around Patsy. She was mischievous and spirited, always laughing, and Millar family lore sparkles with tales of her misadventures: the time she accidentally knocked Raymond out with a telephone. The time she almost got him run over by a car. The time she almost lit the neighbour’s garage on fire.
"She was a woman that never sat down and did nothing, I’ll tell you," Raymond says, as they flip through photos of her adventures: riding a float in St. Laurent’s Métis Days parade, dressed up in costumes, dancing with grandkids.
She travelled often, criss-crossing the globe from Ireland to the Caribbean. She got her first tattoo during a trip to Hawaii at age 65, a hibiscus flower on her shoulder; she later got a shamrock tattoo in Dublin. The family laughed, but that was just so like Patsy.
"She would try anything," Crystal says. "My mom was so independent, always."
Her work, though, never stopped. In fact, Patsy became busier after she retired from teaching: she served on several boards, and helped launch the first Métis HeadStart program for kids in St. Laurent. When the Olympic torch relay passed through the community, she was chosen as the elder to bless the flame.
In 2010, she helped spearhead the creation of The Land Between the Lakes, a massive tome documenting the history of the St. Laurent area. It had taken a team of volunteers two years to complete it, and the result was an exhaustive recounting of the families and places that animated the Métis community for generations.
Above all, she threw her heart into preserving the Michif language, which is now spoken mostly by elders. She taught free Michif classes at the Manitoba Metis Federation office in St. Laurent, looking to pass on the language to future generations. She helped gather other language-speakers to contribute to preservation efforts.
"It was so close to her heart," says Crystal, who followed her mother’s path as an educator. "The more she did it, the more she fell in love with it. The more momentum she seemed to gain, and the more people joining her committees."
With the Louis Riel Institute, she wrote a series of Michif-language children’s books, showing how to make bannock or go ice fishing. She recorded videos, which are posted on YouTube and the institute’s website, explaining her love of the language: in them, Crystal points out, it is easy to see how much more easily her words flowed in Michif.
In 2016, she got together with a group of elders and co-wrote a booklet, Michif French as Spoken by Most Michif People of St. Laurent, which is available at McNally Robinson. In the back, she dedicated the book to her parents, "for teaching me this beautiful Michif French language that I love so much."
Even as she struggled with illness at the end of her life, she took calls to help organize Michif education. Shortly before she died, she learned she was to be honoured with an award from the Aboriginal Circle of Educators, for her contributions to language education. She read the nomination letters, and all the beautiful things they had to say.
She was proud of that work, her daughter says. But she was always most proud of her family, her kids and five grandkids, and they adored her just as much. After she died, her very musical family got together to record her favourite songs for the upcoming celebration of her life, including the Beatles’ Hey Jude.
Patsy didn’t want a funeral, she told Raymond. She wanted her passing to be marked with a celebration, and she wanted it to be happy: "I don’t want no crying, or nothing," he recalls her saying. So in April, they will gather to celebrate her life just how she wanted: with plenty of laughter and gratitude for all she left behind.
Those wishing to honour Patsy’s memory are invited to make a donation to the Canadian Liver Foundation. Or, visit the resources on the Louis Riel Institute’s website, to learn about the language she so deeply loved.