'We don’t have a lot of time' to save Ojibway language, advocates say

A collective of Robinson Huron Territory First Nation members is hoping to direct a portion of the $10-billion settlement awarded to Robinson Huron Treaty annuitants for past compensation to establish a trust fund to preserve their language.

Advocates say that Anishinaabemowin, also known as Ojibway, is endangered and at risk of disappearing as the number of first-language speakers continues to decrease across the Robinson Huron Territory, an area that stretches from Parry Sound to Sudbury, and North Bay to Sault Ste. Marie along the shores of Lake Huron.

They are asking that one to two per cent of the settlement — about $200 million — be directed to an Anishinaabemowin Language Trust to ensure the future sustainability of their language. That would require an amendment to the Compensation Disbursement Agreement of the Robinson Huron Treaty Claim, which requires approval from the chiefs and trustees of the Robinson Huron Treaty Litigation Fund.

A vote will take place on April 22.

The group is also asking for a further investment of the equivalent of two days of interest of the total settlement currently held in trust (about $3 million) to conduct a needs assessment into preserving the language as a first language.

Quinn Meawasige, a member of Serpent River First Nation who is helping coordinate the grassroots effort to revitalize the language, said that according to Statistics Canada in 2021, there were only 25,000 Anishinaabemowin speakers remaining.

Considering the aging population and the rate of decline, “we don’t have a lot of time,” he said.

No one will dispute that the future of Indigenous languages is threatened. In fact, about 15 years ago, the Union of Ontario Indians passed a resolution at a chiefs-in-assembly meeting declaring a state of emergency for the state of Anishinaabemowin, said Meawasige.

The needs assessment would determine the status of the language crisis, establish a timeframe and best practices, and determine whether programming will take a community or territory-based approach.

In terms of programming, “there are really amazing examples in Ojibway territory in Minnesota and Wisconsin,” explained Meawasige.

Programs there are producing first-language and second-language speakers, he said.

Wisconsin is also home to an Ojibway language immersion school, developed more than 20 years ago, where the curriculum is taught in Ojibway.

“So, (we are) looking at where we can best spend and leverage those resources to have the best impact,” he said. “Based off of those, the needs assessment and collective of language champions, community leaders and scholars leading the work will be best to identify the best path forward.”

Currently, some schools in the Robinson Huron Territory offer Ojibway language classes, including in Sudbury, but Meawasige said that doesn’t go far enough.

“That is not enough to be fully immersed and for one to retain the language,” he said.

Other than language classes provided through friendship centres and community-based programs, there is no sustained funding and resources to ensure the programming remains viable and teachers are properly compensated.

Meawasige said the group is hopeful the chiefs and trustees will approve of the amendment on April 22 to divert some funds to a language trust.

“We have an opportunity to invest in language revitalization and preservation and we don’t want to miss it,” he said.

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Laura Stradiotto, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star