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Martha Toulouse grew up speaking Ojibwe at Sagamok Anishinawbek First Nation, in northern Ontario. But her own two kids were raised in English. In Grade 5, Toulouse had to move to an English school, off-reserve, and she said the switch from Ojibwe was a challenge. “I failed quite a bit of classes,” Toulouse said. “I struggled and figured my kids would struggle, too, if I taught them two languages. I thought it was more important that they speak English.” According to Dr. Rose-Alma McDonald, a consultant to, and former Director of Education for, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Toulouse’s experience reflects a wider trend. “The federal government’s assim-

ilationist policies, (such as English education), were very successful in eradicating and destroying many First Nations languages nationally,” Dr. McDonald said. “Only three indigenous languages, out of 54 in Canada, are expected to survive the end of the century.” According to the AFN, between 1996-2001, the proportion of people who identify a First Nations language as their “mother tongue” dropped; but during the same time period, their total population grew. “It’s because of the assimilation process that took place,” Toulouse said. The teenagers at Sagamok still don’t speak Ojibwe today, she said, because they want to be a part of the mainstream. While many adult



If we can speak and undertsand our lang First Nations people are trying to learn their heritage languages today, including her now-grown children, Toulouse knows from her job that learning Ojibwe as a child is easier. Today, she’s working in Toronto to revitalize Ojibwe, teaching it to both children and adults. At the Toronto district school board (TDSB) the concept is still just catching on. “Kids are so funny,” Toulouse said, “they’re very direct. I have a Vietnamese kid in one of the classes and he just looks at me and say ‘Why do I gotta learn Ojibwe?’” Little does he know he’s one of only about 100 kids in Toronto with the option of Ojibwe language in school, according to the TDSB. Toulouse said she is one of three full-time teachers in a board of 7,000. She also teaches adult drop-in classes two nights a-week at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto (NCCT). Two-thirds of her students are First Nations adults,


Roots and Shoots

looking to bridge the gap in their family histories by learning to speak Ojibwe. According to Bernice Gordon, a cultural educator at the NCCT, the other third are non-native people such as herself. Some want to use Ojibwe at work, teaching in schools with First Nations children. Gordon said it helps her understand the culture better; she traces her interesti n the language to a close childhood friendship with an Ojibwe boy. “It’s kind of like a de-colonialisation process,” Gordon said. “If there’s any language we should have been taught in school besides English and French, it’s the local native language. “If for no other reason than to show of respect,” she said. “This is their land… The language has to be learned.” In 2007, Dr. McDonald authored an extensive language study and revitalization strategy for the AFN, which laid the groundwork for restoring aboriginal language fluency in First Nations’ commu-

uage, our Elders can tells us who we are.

AFN Language Policy Study, Ottawa 1998, Mi’kmway

nities by 2027. Participation from the general population, Dr. McDonald said, is critical to attain that goal. She said mass media, employment opportunities and movement off-reserve are three major deterrents to aboriginal languageuse today. “Visibility and accessibility to First Nations languages needs to increase, society-wide,” she said. Toulouse said the lack of standardized curriculum and teaching resources make her job difficult. She shares some material with other teachers via email. But it’s hard, she said, because most use their own regional dialects. Her colour-name worksheets come from a fellow teacher in London, for example, and don’t classify some objects the way she learned at Sagamok. “It’s a learning process for me too,” she said. Dr. McDonald said there is little or no money for curriculum development in Ojibwe, or any other First Nations language.

“The federal government, especially this government, refuses to attach significant dollars to revitalize languages,” she said. The Department of Canadian Heritage presides over languages A representative said it gives $16 million annually to aboriginal communities, “to support…their efforts to protect and enhance their languages.” The federal agency funds community-driven initiatives and broadcasting, specifically, she said, but don’t ascribe official language status to native languages. Dr. McDonald said without that special status, First Nations language programming and curriculum must continue to be developed from within. The AFN 2027 goal is just sixteen years away. “I think it’s possible,” Gordon said, of the goal. “But it will take a lot of work.” The culture, in general, she said, is in the middle of “a reawakening.”



Say, Ojibwe!  

Bringin threatened languages back into the mainstream

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