When Ojibwe language keeper Patricia Ningewance found out she was being appointed to the Order of Canada, the irony of the situation was not lost on her. While she’s grateful to use this extra spotlight to fight to reclaim and spread the Ojibwe language, she recognizes that the honour is coming from the systems that worked so hard to eradicate her language in the first place.
“I think I thought for half a second about it,” said Ningewance, recalling her urge to decline the Order of Canada. “But then I thought of the people that I would be insulting the people who nominated me.”
Here on Craig street in the back corner of Wolseley, Ningewance started her journey publishing Ojibwe to English dictionaries and textbooks for those looking to reclaim Indigenous languages. Originally from Lac Seul First Nation, Ningewance has spent time teaching University level Ojibwe in Ontario and Manitoba, paving the way for her Grandson, Aandeg Muldrew, to become the University of Manitoba’s youngest ever sessional instructor.
Ningewance doesn’t want to stop there however. Her next goal is to see the possibility of degrees available in the field of Ojibwe. “A degree of higher education is what we want,” says Ningewance. “A French person, [or a] German person can get a degree in their language… We don’t have that privilege.”
“To make that happen we’d have to develop all the terminology, modernize the language,” says Ningewance. “It’s a huge ‘if’ we’d be undertaking. It’s something Aandeg can do in the next few decades.”
Ningewance’s relationship with Muldrew is one that she says gives her lots of hope for the future of language keepers. Seeing him succeed as a teacher at the University of Manitoba through her guidance is one of her proudest moments.
“I was in Sault Ste. Marie at the time, teaching over there, and so I couldn't do the intro classes,” recalls Ningewance. “They needed someone because nobody was applying. and so I said, hey, AJ (Muldrew) could probably do it. He watched me teach for five years, and he could speak [the language].”
“So they hired him,” says Ningewance. “And he succeeded. And he’s been doing it very well for [the last five years], since he was 19. I remember they called him the teenage prof! So cute. He was brave to do that. He almost didn't want to, but I told him, you can do it. better than anybody else.”
One of the things Ningewance says surprises some people is that she has no post-secondary degree: she says her experience and knowledge of the language is just as valuable, if not more so. Ningewance takes pride in not having conformed to western teaching values. She believes that even someone with a PhD in the field came along, they wouldn’t be able to have the same impact she has on people.
“I know a lot of [Ojibwe people with] PhDs who have the language but don't have the background knowledge that I do,” says Ningewance. “They just don't, they have no vision. They're nice people, they just don't have the vision and the ground information.”
And that’s not intended to put anyone down with those credentials - for Ningewance, learning Ojibwe transcends farther than just learning the words - it also means understanding and learning Ojibwe culture.
Something that Ningewance has had to fight against in reclaiming and teaching Ojibwe is the guilt and trauma that many older Indigenous people carry in regards to having lost their language. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released their final report on the lasting effects of the Canadian Residential Schools system, Ningewance was tasked with helping translate it into Ojibwe. Through this process, Ningewance says she came to a realization.
“Just reading page after page of Canada trying to take away our languages, and then to realize they succeeded,” says Ningewance. “A lot of Ojibwe, native people will say, no… they deny it, but we can't deny it. It happened. That’s what happened and to continue to deny it is to continue to not do anything.”
Whenever she comes back to this area of town, Ningewance looks to see what trees have changed, either having been cut down or grown substantially. Overall, she reflects positively on her time spent living in Woseley.
“I just felt safe there,” recalls Ningewance. “I liked the thinking of the people around me… Friends, people who were in the arts or whatever kind of work they were doing. You didn’t feel judged for anything.”
Ningewance’s final message to anyone curious to learn more about Ojibwe is to take classes, no matter if you are Indigenous or not. Ningewance says those that come into her classes with open minds usually do the best and learn the most from her classes. If you have the means, Ningewance urges people not to audit the courses but to fully enroll, as not only do you get more out of the course, it also helps show the institution you’re at the importance of the Ojibwe programs they offer.
Daniel McIntyre-Ridd, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Leaf