Grassroots initiatives forming to preserve aboriginal languages

Showna Smoke can now introduce herself in the Ojibway language.

She was not exposed to her mother tongue as a child and she always felt like something was missing.

“A lot of shame too,” Smoke said. “You know I felt like I was less Anishinaabe because I didn’t know my language.”

There are 60 Aboriginal languages in Canada: Cree, Inunktitut and Ojibway are the most common.

But even those are hanging by a thread. According to the 2011 Census, 213,490 people spoke Aboriginal languages as their mother tongue – down 1.7 per cent from 2006.

The loss of language is the aftermath of the country’s residential school system.

When Aboriginal children were removed from their homes and families, culture and languages were taken away too.

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Don Jabokwoan worked in the Linguistics Department at the University of Toronto. He can speak Ojibway fluently but he says it’s inevitable that the language will disappear.

“The parents are teaching their children English. They’re talking to them in English because they don’t understand their native language,” Jabokwoan said. “You teach them the native language when they’re small, they’ll speak it when they get older.”

Related: A growing number of aboriginals living in urban areas. 

While under threat, there is a resurgence of native languages happening across the country with language classes in communities and cities.

Melody Crowe is one teachers who has been “re-teaching” Ojibway for more than 22 years.

“I feel like that language is already there you know that’s what connects us to our ancestors and it’s part of our identity and it’s part of our who we are,” she said.

Last Fall, Crowe produced a language kit to be distributed to every household in her community of Alderville First Nation. The kit includes a DVD, CD and book. More than 100 community members took part in the video speaking the language. Some, for the first time ever.

“I had two elders sitting together saying a word back and forth,” she says. “And that never would have happened because they didn’t get the opportunity to grow up with the language. That language kit is one example of being able to preserve it so that generations to come you’s there to pick up.

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For the Ojibway communities, a language conference is held once a year. “Anishinaabemowin Teg” brings people together to promote the teaching and development of Ojibway language. At the conference, a group of Elders meet to talk about how the language is evolving and to come up with new words. Indigenous languages are old and as a result, there were no words for things like computers or cell phones.

And there are also grassroots initiatives happening too. Keith Montreuil, also from Alderville, is organizing a language summer camp. Montreuil, like Smoke, didn’t grow up with the language.

He says he would learn it at school, but it was not spoken at home. He says it’s important for him to learn the language now for future generations.

“So whether or not they hear the language at school, when they come home, they’ll hear the language and they’ll always have that.”

While experts worry if it will survive, Smoke says there is hope. Especially when she hears her five children speak the language.

“it fills me with hope because I think they’ll take it that much further and they won’t have to go searching for it like how I am now they’ll just have it”

The Native Canadian Centre of Toronto offers Cree and Ojibway evening classes.

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This story is the second in a week-long series that will celebrate aboriginal people in the traditional and contemporary world.