Local man concerned about future of Anishinaabemowin language

By Kirk Winter

At least 85 Indigenous languages in Canada are either vulnerable to or facing outright extinction, according to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. One of those languages is Ojibwe, or Anishinaabemowin, the language spoken locally by the Nishnaabeg of Curve Lake. If D.J. Fife has his way, this ancient and complex language will not disappear without a fight, but the challenge is great.

“It is a dire time for the language today in Ontario. The language is seriously endangered at Curve Lake. I would say there are perhaps fewer than 20 proficient Anishinaabemowin speakers left in our community,” Fife said. UNESCO concurs, reporting that there may be fewer than 6,000 Ojibwe speakers left in all of Canada.

Fife, 30, and originally from Curve Lake, is by day a park warden at Petroglyphs Provincial Park, home to the historical and spiritually significant Kinomaagewapkong (the Teaching Rocks).

Fife studied Anishinaabemowin throughout elementary and high school, just as many of his peers did, never with any intention of becoming an unofficial spokesperson for language preservation.

“I grew up in Curve Lake,” Fife told the Advocate in a series of telephone and email exchanges. “Most of the people born after 1960 in Curve Lake don’t speak Anishinaabemowin fluently. Most knew some words but didn’t know the language. My mom’s generation forward could understand the language to an extent, but they could not speak it. Despite the fact it was taught in school, you had to pursue it on your own to get really good at it.”

Residential schools were one of the biggest contributors to the loss of the language, Fife said. “There were certainly active attempts made to demonize the language and culture. My grandparents’ generation was actively punished for speaking the language at school, but the language remained alive in the community. The problem was outside of that tightly knit community the language was not seen as a positive asset.”

Although there was an uptick of interest starting in the 1970s, Fife added, “The overwhelming settler culture and not enough opportunity to use the language as a tool for advancement impacts the interest in learning Anishinaabemowin. You have to want it as a part of your identity. You have to make a point to learn it and many start, but not many have reached a level of fluency.”

Through repetition and effort, Fife made his language more than an academic pursuit. “For many years every week I would speak to my grandparents working on my language. Speaking to them gave the language a usefulness, a purpose. You cannot learn it to tick a box for a self- identity checklist; it needs to have meaning in your daily life.

“For many Indigenous people we are just trying to fit in with the wider (settler) community as a whole. As a young person I was always trying to tap back into my culture and nail down my identity and who I was, while many others were just trying to get by.” With English as the only option for work and advancement, Anishinaabemowin was not only not a benefit; it could be a disadvantage. “Folks who struggled with English were stereotyped as people with a lack of intellect,” Fife said.

Since graduating high school Fife, who never intended to be a teacher, has shared his knowledge of the Anishinaabemowin language with students at elementary and secondary schools in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board and college students at Georgian College in Barrie.

“I would much rather talk about the language than teach it, but with the help of my granny, who assisted me delivering program, I was always willing to give it a shot,” Fife said.

“Many Ojibwe teachers today are like myself and have learned Ojibwe as a second language,” Fife said, adding that while the language is best learned through immersion, there are only two such schools in Ontario. “Many will struggle breaking down the language otherwise. In any other school setting there should be a balance of culture and language, and fluency should not be expected as a goal.” English-speaking Canadians don’t necessarily gain fluency in French from 75-minute daily high school classes , he noted, so Anishinaabemowin is no different.

“We need to get many others involved in helping spread the language,” Fife said. “There are other younger people interested running language camps, but these people are scattered over a huge area of Ojibwe country. There are only a handful of speakers under the age of 50 currently in Ontario and that is not good.”

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