RRDSB and SGEI celebrate success of Indigenous language strategy

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

The Rainy River District School Board (RRDSB) and Seven Generations Education Institute (SGEI) have some successes to celebrate when it comes to their combined efforts to create and administer a way to help keep Anishinaabemowin alive and thriving.

In 2017, RRDSB, SGEI and SayITFirst, an organization dedicated to Indigenous language revitalization efforts through digital apps and other interactive media, launched the Ojibwe Language Strategy Anishinaabemodaa program in order to help new speakers begin to learn the language, and help other speakers refine or strengthen their grasp and knowledge of Anishinaabemowin as a spoken language.

RRDSB director of education Heather Campbell and SGEI CEO Brent Tookenay that the collaboration between the two organizations has existed for a long time, well before 2017, and over those years a significant amount of time was dedicated to trying to re-establish Anishinaabemowin as a language, along with coming up with tools to put into the hands of teachers who would be bringing the language to students. However, Campbell said the major shortcoming of those efforts, even as they developed more language tools, was that it wasn’t achieving a crucial goal of training more teachers. The Ojibwe Language Strategy Anishinaabemodaa program, initially proposed by Tookenay and SayITFirst’s Mike Parkhill, was the solution.

The strategy itself is unique in the province, Campbell explained, as it has several different branching arms that serve to provide critical learning both to students and teachers, increasing the quality of language programming while also directly serving to strengthen its own future. One of the streams of the strategy is aimed at training more Anishinaabemowin teachers in the future, who will in turn bring their strengths with the language to new students. The hope is those students might choose to become teachers themselves, and so on. Tookenay said that purposeful streams of the strategy were built in response to materials they had come up with in previous years.

“We were creating all these great resources but they were really for speakers and it wasn’t building more speakers,” he explained.

“That’s when we went back to the drawing board. From there it’s been fantastic. There’s a lot of traction in various areas, from daycares to building more teachers, adult language classes, language nests. A lot of the direction comes from our 10 communities that work with the Rainy River Board and Seven Gens. That’s a real important part.”

Of course, it’s challenging to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy like this without teachers to bring it to the students, and Tookenay acknowledged that was one of the hurdles they faced when developing the program.

“One of the biggest challenges I see is the time frame,” he said.

“Heather needs more teachers like yesterday, so we’re working towards shrinking some timeframes and different pathways, but from my perspective that’s probably one of the biggest challenges looking at it from the school board.”

Campbell echoed Tookenay and said that the urgency was one of the biggest challenges they faced in developing and implementing the program, particularly as the population of strong Anishinaabemowin speakers will continue to dwindle as those who know the language age.

“They are such resources for this strategy, for communities,” Campbell said.

“The urgency is a challenge. Not only do I need teachers, but in order to do this we really rely on communities and those people who are fluent in the language.”

Still, even with not insignificant challenges, the Anishinaabemodaa strategy has seen success since its implementation, proof that the collaborative efforts are having an effect and can help to reverse the decline of the language among local communities, and perhaps even farther abroad. Pointing to Fort Frances High School, Campbell explained that one major highlight has been the implementation of a Grade 12 university Ojibwe language course. Before that university-level course was offered, the only option was an open-level course. For those who might have graduated from high school long enough ago that their memories are hazy at best, open courses aren’t really useful when it comes to applications to post-secondary schools.

“Not only does this give significance to Anishinaabemowin learning, the language having significance as far as applications to a future post-secondary degree or diploma program and career, but it also allows a pathway into post-secondary faculty of education, eventually,” Campbell said.

“Over the last few years we’ve seen equal enrolment in Ojibwe language courses for grade 10 on. You’re only required to take one grade 10 language course, and that’s french. You can substitute with Anishinaabemowin. We’re seeing more students enrol in grade 10, 11 and 12, so for us, that signifies that students are seeing that pathway, are excited about the opportunities and it really speaks to a future with more speakers.”

Campbell said the enrolment numbers for those Indigenous languages classes are comparable to the enrolment numbers for the equivalent french classes, serving to highlight that there is desire from students for that stream of knowledge. Those classes are also complemented by a mentor-learner program that pairs interested students up with a speaker in order to provide more interaction and learning with the language outside of the classroom, a necessity for anyone learning a new language to achieve fluency.

Tookenay said the added success of the program is that it’s allowing students who do take the courses to connect them to their community and history. Not every student who takes the language course will go on to be a language teacher, he explained, but it nevertheless feeds into their sense of self, their histories, culture, ceremonies and will potentially directly benefit the community as a whole in the future.

“For the students that’s really an important part of their success,” he said.

“But there’s also huge needs on our communities for people who are fluent in the language in terms of healthcare, in terms of other initiatives our First Nations have that they’re working towards. These young folks are going to be an important part of that support and those initiatives on our communities, and I think that’s one piece I’m just amazed at how it goes.”

The support the strategy has seen from area First Nations, from elders and knowledge keepers, is one more success in Tookenay’s eyes.

“Those folks are so valuable, not only in what they bring for our students or the initiative, but to us as leaders,” he said.

“Those are so important in helping keep the project and initiative grounded and moving forward in a good way.”

See next week’s edition of the Fort Frances Times for more from Campbell and Tookenay on the Ojibwe Language Strategy Anishinaabemodaa program.