It’s the night of the weekly language class at the Suswaaning Endaajig (Indigenous Centre), a quaint area for students at Durham College to go and learn Ojibwa. Cassie Dillon is raring to go. The first-year health promotion student says her native language is Mohawk. She speaks a bit of her native language but she’s taking the online Anishinaabemowin (Native language) with Isadore Toulouse, a fluent speaker from Wikwemikong Unceded First Nation community located on the Manitoulin Island.
Isadore Toulouse has developed an online platform to teach Ojibwa to anyone who wants to learn.
“I’ve learned a lot just in a few weeks taking Isadore’s class. Mohawk is a difficult language to learn, it’s nothing like learning Ojibwa. He’s dedicated to the langugae. I love his teachings,” says Dillon, who has been in the class for the three weeks.
The Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation in the Durham Region is one of many First Nations dedicated to bringing the Mississauga language (Ojibwa) back to the community. According to the Scugog Island First Nations’ mandate, elders are committed to teaching community members the language of their ancestors.
Laura Colwell, education advisor at Scugog, says the First Nation has limited fluent speakers but still offers evening classes. “We only have a few elders who speak the language. We lost a fluent speaker not that long ago,” says Colwell.
Many strategies are suggested in They Came For The Children, a 120-page document from the final report put out by Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is an outline of what life was like in residential schools.
The report details Indigenous children who faced language loss the minute they arrived at the residential schools.
Upwards of 150,000 Indigenous children were affected by language and cultural loss, stripped of their identity and ripped away from their families and loved ones, according to Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC.
“You are no longer allowed to speak your language, if you do, you will be severely punished. From this day forward you must speak only English,” according to the final report from the TRC.
Over time, children lost their language due to the lack of use after being placed with English-speaking foster parents.
Throughout the five-year inquiry that took endless hours and hundreds of personal testimony, the three-member panel making up the TRC (Murray Sinclair, Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild, and Marie Wilson) compiled the information and determined Indigenous children of survivors in Canada and in Ontario did not want to speak their language or forgot it all together.
As a result, the survivors did not teach their children the language.
The TRC determined the residential school era was the main reason Indigenous people lost their language.
When children came home, some after a ten-year absence, they could no longer communicate with their parents, grandparents, or other relatives.
According to Chief Phyllis Williams of Curve Lake First Nation, she and others had safe speaking areas in non-native schools where they would speak the Mississauga language.
Curve Lake First Nation is determined to revitalize the Mississauga language and according to Louise Musgrave, manager of education for Curve Lake First Nation, the community is eager to get started. Her department is involved with planning and strategies such as social gatherings where community members will speak only Ojibwa.
“The elders who are fluent are the knowledge keepers for the community, they hold the Mississauga language and dialect that reflects the culture of Curve Lake First Nation,” says Musgrave.
Anne Taylor, cultural archivist for Curve Lake First Nation, says the close proximity to Peterborough also contributed to language loss.
“Over the last 30-40 years many have sought employment in the city,” she wrote in an email. According to Taylor, there are fewer than 60 fluent speakers in Curve Lake.
But it’s not just classes trying to bring back Indigenous languages. Darrick Baxter of Ogoki Learning developed an App, released in 2013. The Ojibway App allows users to listen to the word or phrases.
Another App by the same developer allows users to point the phone, take a picture, and have it transcribed into Indigenous languages.
Dave Mowat of Alderville First Nation and Consultation of Lands and Membership supervisor for Scugog Island First Nation, says it’s hard to find a fluent speaker on his reserve.
“There are a few young people who speak a bit of the Ojibwa language, but I wouldn’t say they are fluent,” says Mowat.
According to Mowat, Alderville First Nation suffered immense loss of value for the Mississauga language, starting in the mid 1800s.
In some schools in Ontario, there are Indigenous language classes for students who want to learn the language.
The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board (KPRDSB) has put out a call for speakers at any level to teach youth the Mississauga language.
Roseneath Public School near Alderville First Nation has offered language classes for close to a decade.
According to the Board, there are currently four elementary schools in the area, two high schools and evening classes offered in the City of Peterborough.
Back at Durham College, Cassie attends classes in the Simcoe Building every Monday.
Although Isadore’s class does not include her Mohawk language, Cassie can still learn Ojibwa at Durham College, and her own language as well.
She will have two Indigenous languages to pass onto future generations.