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What Indigenous language revitalization looks like in northern Ontario

From language apps to Order of Canada appointments, language revitalization success stories from northern Ontario are being recognized and celebrated. 

Anishinaabemowin speakers, teachers and learners find ways to keep language alive.

Three headshots

Cassandra Spade of Mishkeegogamang First Nation began learning her language later in life. As a young adult, she had plans to enrol in law school, but changed course, tugged by a feeling that a part of her was missing.

“It came back to that piece of identity and that language is so important to understanding who you are,” Spade said.

She began to immerse herself in Anishinaabemowin by taking language classes and working with elders in First Nations in northwestern Ontario.

Spade is one of many people across northern Ontario — and across Canada — who are fighting for Indigenous languages to survive and thrive. As more people prioritize language revitalization, creative resources and new opportunities are being created.

More than 70 Indigenous languages are spoken across Canada, and they can be divided into 12 language families.

Across the country, 189,000 individuals reported having an Indigenous mother tongue, alone or in combination with another language, and 183,000 reported speaking an Indigenous language at home at least on a regular basis in 2021, according to the latest census data from Statistics Canada. Of these, 86,000 spoke predominantly an Indigenous language at home.

From student to teacher

If Spade and others have their way, those numbers will only grow in the coming years.

Her own efforts to learn her language only sparked her desire to do more, and she eventually reached out to her auntie, Arleen Ash of Mishkeegogamang First Nation, for help. She knew her auntie was a fluent speaker and could open her up to more opportunities to engage in conversation.

Two teachers teaching students. They are standing at the front of the class.

Spade and Ash now teach Anishinaabemowin together for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario. The two of them value the language and contribute to its survival. One way they teach is by having students hear Anishinaabe stories in their mother tongue.

“It’s such an impactful way for students to actually hear how that story is told by that storyteller when they are speaking their language,” Ash said. “It’s beautiful.”

Language app expands

Others are seizing the potential of technology to help carry language forward.

The Anishinaabemodaa App is a language platform created in partnership with the organization Say It First, the Rainy River District School Board and Seven Generations Education Institute, which serves Treaty 3 Territory, as part of a larger language revitalization strategy.

The goal of the learning tool is language revitalization for younger generations, said Mike Parkhill, founder of Say It First.

“It’s a moral imperative that we need to drive toward, always, in order to keep a healthy society,” Parkhill said.

The platform has online flash card-style tools for learning vocabulary and offers various features to engage users. The text-to-speech features allow them to hear how a word is pronounced. Avatars have been added that show how the movement of the lips and tongue is able to help replicate the sound.

Parkhill hopes the feature will help people who learn better by seeing, hearing and doing an activity.

Last year, the learning tool was made available to 68 classrooms at school boards across northern Ontario, with plans to expand to more this year.

Language trailblazer recognized

Language revitalization tools build on a foundation established over decades by people like Patricia Ningewance.

Ningewance, who is originally from Lac Seul First Nation in northwestern Ontario and now lives in Winnipeg, understands the importance of contributing to the liveliness of the Ojibway language, and dedicates her life and career to language vitality.

Ningewance was recently appointed to the Order of Canada for her work as an Anishinaabemowin teacher, author and publisher.

When she first began teaching, she recognized a lack of resources for Ojibway language learners, so has published numerous books to assist them. She hopes her Order of Canada appointment inspires more fluent speakers to take the time to pass language along to younger generations.

“I’m hoping that other people my age will begin creating other speakers … The way I have with my grandson,” Ningewance said, referring to Aandeg Muldrew.

Patricia spent time teaching him their language starting when he was 10 years old. Muldrew began teaching at the University of Manitoba at 19, making him one of the youngest sessional instructors.

He’s an example of how the younger generations are reclaiming the language they didn’t have the privilege of learning from birth.


Sara Kae is an Indigenous reporter in Thunder Bay. She covers stories that highlight Indigenous voices with a special focus on arts and culture.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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