A Historic Milestone for Indigenous Languages

Last Updated: June 16, 2024By

A Historic Milestone for Indigenous Languages

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Speaking from the Heart

Sol Mamakwa, a member of the New Democratic Party from Kingfisher Lake First Nation, made history in Ontario. On Tuesday, he became the first person to address the province’s legislature in Anishininiimowin, also known as Oji-Cree. This moment was incredibly important to him, and he described feeling “thankful and proud.”

A Powerful Permission

Before Mamakwa began, he asked for unanimous consent to speak in Anishininiimowin. The lawmakers responded with applause, showing their support. This was a huge step for Indigenous languages, which have faced a long history of suppression due to colonization and residential schools.

Speaking for the Silent

“I am speaking for those who couldn’t use their language,” Mamakwa said, his voice filled with emotion. He talked about how Indigenous children were taken away from their families and had their culture and language stripped away. He recalled the painful history of children having their mouths washed out with soap for speaking their native tongues.

A Change in the Rules

This historic event was possible because of a recent change by Ontario’s government house leader, Paul Calandra. Now, lawmakers can speak in any Indigenous language spoken in Canada, thanks to an amended rule. When Mamakwa spoke, there was simultaneous translation available in English and French.

A Community United

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More than two dozen members of Kingfisher Lake First Nation came to Toronto to witness this moment, along with Indigenous political leaders from all over the province. It was a powerful show of support and solidarity.

Languages at Risk

Although nearly 2 million Canadians identify as Indigenous, only about 260,000 can speak an Indigenous language. There are 58 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada, but many are at risk of disappearing. While languages like Cree, Ojibwe, and Inuktitut have more speakers, others, like the Sechelt language, are on the verge of extinction. In Haida Gwaii, the youngest native Haida speaker is already in her 70s.

A Family Legacy

Mamakwa’s mother, Kezia, who doesn’t speak English, was also there. She got a standing ovation from the lawmakers. It was also her 79th birthday, and the whole legislature sang to her. Mamakwa shared how his mother used to take him out into the wilderness, teaching him their language. That’s why he can speak Anishininiimowin today.

Remembering His Father

Mamakwa also talked about his late father, Jerry, saying, “He’s hearing us today,” while holding up an eagle feather. It was clear how much his family influenced his ability to speak and preserve his native language.

A Need for Action

Even though Mamakwa is fluent, he mentioned that a recent conversation with an elder showed him how easy it is to lose the language. This highlighted the urgent need for more official use of Indigenous languages.

Language as Healing

“When we speak our own language, it’s like we’re one with the land,” Mamakwa said. “There is a strength in speaking our language – it’s like a healing medicine.” His words resonated deeply with everyone present.

A Warm Reception

After his speech, ministers from the Progressive Conservative party, along with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, crossed the aisle to congratulate and embrace Mamakwa. “I’m proud of you,” Ford said, hugging him.

Looking to the Future

Mamakwa also led the opening to the question period, asking in Anishininiimowin about funding for healthcare beds for elderly residents in his community. He hopes other provincial legislatures will follow Ontario’s example and allow Indigenous languages to be spoken. “This is a healing moment,” he said, clearly moved. “It overwhelms my heart.”

A Broader Impact

In Canada’s parliament, a rule change in 2019 allowed lawmakers to speak in Indigenous languages, but they must give two days’ notice for translation. Mamakwa is praying for more provinces to adopt similar rules, spreading this healing moment across the country.

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