Traditional language on the rise, thanks to innovative programs

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

So you’ve introduced a strong program designed aimed strengthening the spoken Anishinaabemowin language in the region, and increase the number of fluent speakers and future teachers. Even as the successes of the program are celebrated, there’s still work to be done to make it even better.

For Heather Campbell, director of education at the Rainy River District School Board (RRDSB) and Brent Tookenay, the CEO of Seven Generations Education Institute (SGEI), who have collaborated on the joint Ojibwe Language Strategy Anishinaabemodaa program, the work doesn’t just stop once the proofs of the program’s value begin to show. They have been working on the language strategy for years at this point, and there is still work to be done.

“We continue to develop outstanding resources,” Campbell said of the program.

“The team that Brent employs at SGEI has been very busy developing resources for early childhood educators and teachers, we have language learning apps. Those are just some of the things you can see, but I think involving our other regional school boards is another way to expand. This is not just an RRDSB issue, it’s an issue for many school boards in northwestern Ontario, and I would say northeastern Ontario.”

Campbell said she has learned from other school boards that many Anishinaabemowin teachers are close to retirement age, and don’t necessarily have replacements ready to go. Furthermore, even those languages teachers might not all be fluent in the language, so the continued success of the strategy here in the Rainy River District can serve as a model for others, who can then potentially train up more strong language teachers. Campbell said even now, teachers are expressing interest in the program to strengthen their own skills and improve fluency, which indicates plenty of potential for the language strategy in the future.

“I can see the program expanding further, and a lot of the strength we’ve talked about as far as the structure, the work with communities, it’s critical. But this is a model for other communities, other school boards, and the resources can be used outside of our area and across the province.”

Tookenay shared that part of the strength of the language strategy has been that the team behind it didn’t settle for what he called the “status quo.” He used Campbell’s push for the university level Anishinaabemowin course at Fort Frances High School as an example of using the strategy to make strides in providing strong new content when it could easily have been kept at just improving what they already had.

“It’s really important that there are different opportunities and options out there that can fit into this, that can help address some of the needs from our communities, school boards, Seven Gens, daycares,” he said.

“I think continuing to push that way as well is something that obviously falls on the shoulders of Heather and I but our leadership is always about trying to do things better. Just because we’ve done things one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do them. That’s what’s important about the strategy, to keep looking and pushing the envelope to do things better or in a different way that will work for people.”

Tookenay said one aspect they will need to keep in mind for the future is how the program will adapt to being implemented in a school board that doesn’t have a close working relationship with an organization like SGEI. Campbell noted that has been a strength of the program so far, having the interaction between the school board and an education institute that has strong Anishinaabemowin initiatives in place. What will likely end up happening in that future scenario is anyone’s guess, but Campbell said she expects the program will come up with new and innovative ways to tackle any problem, like it has since its inception in 2017.

“The strategy has really evolved,” she said.

“As I said there have been many challenges. We had delays in funding, we had the pandemic and movement to just virtual learning. We’ve had to ask how do we do things differently and how can we revisit and revise and make this outstanding? Also, how do we push existing structures to reconsider or reflect upon why they exist the way they do. The grade 12 Ojibwe language course is a good example.”

Campbell said that even though the university-level grade 12 Ojibwe class was designed in partnership with Lakehead University, she’s been hearing other colleges and universities in the country have begun accepting the course during applications. Campbell said credit is due to Fort Frances High School teacher Farrell White and the school’s guidance counselors for pushing more schools to recognize the course.

Anishinaabemowin is far from a dead language, though it isn’t spoken with as much frequency as it has been in the past, due to efforts like the Residential School system. But from his point of view, Tookenay believes Anishinaabemowin and its speakers are in a better place now than they have been in years. It’s thanks to efforts like the Ojibwe Language Strategy Anishinaabemodaa program and others who continue to learn and speak the language with their friends, families and communities at large that the spoken language can make a strong comeback.

“I believe that there are more speakers now and more opportunities to learn the language from our communities,” he said.

“Many communities are having language nests or language nights. If there is maybe a good thing about the pandemic, it has allowed more people to access the language, because you can do it through Zoom, or Teams, or online, and have these conversations. You can access teachers like Dennis Jones, who lives in Minneapolis, and he can provide language instruction. I think there are a lot more people making this a priority in our communities. I think a lot of people are listening to each other about how important the language is as Anishinaabe people to have that to help ground you, so you can participate in ceremony and traditions and be able to pass that on when they become older as a knowledge keeper. I don’t want to say the language is in jeopardy. I think there are more people using it and I think it’s really moving forward.”