Owner of Buck's Sports Shop, Amanda Buckshot in front of her store

Amanda Buckshot is the manager of Buck’s Sports Shop. Serving both Kitigan Zibi and Manawaki, her employees serve customers in both English and French. [Photo © Isabella Rumfeldt]

Help wanted: why businesses at Kitigan Zibi have to navigate three languages

Learning French an economic necessity, but Anglophone-speaking First Nation also hoping to revitalize community’s mother tongue.

By: Philippe Doucet, Zuhra Jibril, Taylor O’Brien, and Isabella Rumfeldt

It can be difficult to find the right candidate for the job in the best of circumstances. But for businesses in Kitigan Zibi — a majority-Anglophone Anishinaabe community in Quebec—hiring comes with a few extra challenges.

The First Nation is so close to neighbouring Maniwaki — where nearly 60 per cent of residents only speak French — that it can be difficult for a visitor to tell where one community ends and the other begins.

Amanda Buckshot, the manager of Buck’s Sports Shop in Kitigan Zibi, says about two-thirds of the store’s clientele speak only French.

“You have to be able to serve them in both languages,” she said. Buckshot added that all of her employees must be bilingual in French and English.

Image of Amanda Buckshot inside her office discussing employment requirements.

Amanda Buckshot inside Buck’s Sports Shop discusses how her business is lucky when it comes to the number of staff she has. [Photo © Isabella Rumfeldt] 

Finding bilingual candidates from Kitigan Zibi is a challenge, said Buckshot. The First Nation encourages businesses to hire community members, which Buckshot agreed is important.

But being bilingual can determine whether someone lands a job – or not.

Add to that an additional pressure: the community’s Indigenous language, Algonquin, is at risk. That puts Kitigan Zibi businesses in the tricky position of navigating three languages.

The language of commerce

Not all businesses and stores in Kitigan Zibi require employees to speak French and English.

Brett Dumont, the assistant manager and co-owner of KZ Freshmart, the community’s grocery store, said it doesn’t matter to him what language his employees speak.

“As far as Im concerned, if you can just do the job, well, then youre more than qualified enough to work at KZ Freshmart,” he said.

However, given that the language of commerce in the region tends to be both English and French, the First Nation offers multiple French language training programs.

Barry Commando, Kitigan Zibi’s economic development officer, said there’s “a strong French program that’s taken place throughout the schooling,” which he said has been successful.

Buckshot added that the First Nation offers “great incentives, like summer projects and employment projects if we take on someone from the community.”

“We’re working a lot to get training in place to bring them all up to par with what’s needed when they do apply for jobs on and off the community,” Commando said.

Graph of unemployment rates between 2001 to 2010 in KZ

The graph above shows the changes in unemployment rate in Kitigan Zibi, Maniwaki, and Quebec province between 2001 to 2021. Unemployment rates in Kitigan Zibi have been in decline since the following year after 2011. [Infographic © Isabella Rumfeldt]

The training efforts may be part of the reason Kitigan Zibi has managed to cut its unemployment rate nearly in half since 2001, to 20 per cent.

That’s still almost double the rate of unemployment in Maniwaki.

Although many factors contribute to unemployment, unilingual Anglophones — who make up nearly 60 per cent of Kitigan Zibi’s population — may have a harder time finding jobs in businesses where they need to serve local clients.

The economic advantage of speaking French in Kitigan Zibi is, therefore, still very present. “As with anything else, it’s always to your benefit to be bilingual,” said Commando.

Not a "rich" language

What isn’t lost on most employers or job seekers in Kitigan Zibi is that neither French nor English is the community’s Indigenous language.

Algonquin — a dialect of Anishinaabemowin — is the third most spoken language in Kitigan Zibi. However, its a language at risk: only five per cent of Kitigan Zibi’s 1,205 residents speak the language at home to some degree.

The community’s businesses don’t need to serve clients in Algonquin, when most speak either French or English.

At KZ Freshmart, Dumont said he picked up a lot of English and French in Maniwaki. But he spoke Algonquin when he was young, thanks to his grandmother, who was a fluent speaker.

“I had the luxury of having my kindergarten teacher be my grandmother,” he said.

While waiting for his parents to get home from work after school, he and his grandmother would continue speaking the language together. Dumont said he was very fluent then, but not anymore.

Brett inside KZ's Freshmart, a family owned business

Brett Dumont is the assistant manager and part co-owner of Freshmart, the main grocery store in Kitigan Zibi. He says the grocery story has been serving the community for almost 40 years now. [Photo © Isabella Rumfedlt]

“Its very sad to say that our language is dying,” he said.

“Its a rich language,” he added, “but it’s not necessarily a ‘rich’ language in the sense that you need it to get by [while] living in the Quebec region.”

Making space for Algonquin in business

Buckshot said there have always been Algonquin language classes in the community, but she only knows about 40 words.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” she said. “I can’t have a conversation at all.”

However, her daughter is learning the language in her kindergarten class at Pakinawatik Kikinamadinan school. Her teacher last year was completely bilingual — not in French and English, but in Algonquin and English.

After hearing her teacher speak Algonquin during class, Buckshot’s daughter would come home and say some words in the language.

“It was just — oh my gosh. It was amazing.

To Buckshot, learning Algonquin in school is “becoming more and more important, because it’s going to be… lost eventually.”

Freshmart is a grocery store owned by Brett in Kitigan Zibi that serves the residents of KZ

Freshmart continues to supply employment to members of the community. [Photo © Isabella Rumfeldt]

In addition to language-learning classes and programs, Buckshot said some stores —like KZ Freshmart — are trying to make more use of the language. The grocery store labels food items in Algonquin, as well as English and French.

Incorporating more Algonquin into local businesses could make a big difference to revitalization efforts, she said.

“A lot of people would like to see more of the language.”