In historic move, Ontario will allow Indigenous languages to be spoken in legislature

When he rises inside Ontario’s legislature at the end of May, with his mother watching on, Sol Mamakwa will be able to pose a question to the government in his first language.

A recent change to the rules that govern members at Queen’s Park means anyone who wants to intervene, speak or ask questions in an Indigenous language will be able to do so without asking permission for the first time in the province’s history.

“When I bring my mom here, I wanted it to be in my language,” Mamakwa told Global News, explaining that she doesn’t speak English.

A permanent change to the rules of debate means members will not be limited to only English or French at Queen’s Park. “Indigenous languages spoken in Canada” can now also be used going forward.

Mamakwa represents the riding of Kiiwetinoong in northern Ontario, an area with a large Indigenous population. He grew up speaking Ojibwe and said the language makes him feel comfortable.

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“It’s amazing because when I am here, I am unable to speak my language,” he said. “It’s like I’m far away from home…. I’ll be less far away from home speaking my language.”

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The change to the standing orders came because of Mamakwa’s mom’s visit, he explained. The NDP MPP said he began a conversation with Progressive Conservative house leader Paul Calandra that led the government to rewrite the rules.

“We’ve broken down all the administrative barriers to make it much easier for him,” Greg Rickford, the minister of Indigenous affairs, told Global News.

“We just think it’s time to break down all of those barriers and let one of Canada’s and Ontario’s oldest languages be spoken on the floor of the legislative assembly.”

The Indigenous affairs minister called the change “one of the most important things” to ever happen at Queen’s Park in terms of reconciliation.

Before the decision, simultaneous translation was only available for Canada’s two official languages, English and French. Using any other language required special permission from the house.

The new rules mean that any MPP who wants to speak any Indigenous language in the chamber will no longer need to ask to be allowed to do so. They will still need to give notice so translation services can be arranged but Rickford said the permission element of the rules is gone completely.

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“We’re creating an opportunity for the diversity of First Nation languages spoken in Ontario (to be used in) the legislative assembly,” he said.

“As it stands, Sol speaks Ojibwe and so we’ll make those arrangements but, as he said, language is tied to so many things in their culture and in their history.”

Mamakwa said the day the change went through was “monumental” and a “big move” from the government to make the new rules permanent.

“Once the systems are in place, the translators are in place, I can speak my language any time,” he said. “And I won’t be forbidden the way I was when I went to Indian residential schools.”

Mamakwa is planning to have his mother and elders from his community visit on May 28 to hear him speak his language on the floor of the Ontario legislature. The visit will come on her birthday.

He said the change represents tangible reconciliation for the provincial government.

“What this government has done today is actually reconciliation and I think it’s going to be history in the making for me to be able to speak my language in this place,” he said.

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