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Lakehead University Magazine Spring/Summer 2008

Preserving the Ojibwe Language

By Andrew Bryce

Ethel Gardner
Professor Stelomethet Ethel Gardner
Professor Stelomethet Ethel Gardner, Chair of Lakehead University‘s Department of Aboriginal Education, is passionate about conserving the linguistic and cultural diversity that enriches the fabric of the human race. A member of Fraser Valley, British Columbia’s Stó:lo First Nation, Gardner has devoted much of her academic career to Aboriginal language revitalization in Canada. She is currently spearheading a research project – in partnership with the 28 “Treaty 3” Anishinaabe communities in Northern Ontario and Manitoba – with hopes to rejuvenate and reinvigorate their Ojibwe language.

In 2006, her first year at Lakehead, Gardner was asked to attend a meeting with members of Treaty 3’s three Tribal Councils. This meeting was held at the behest of the Treaty 3 representatives, who reached out to Lakehead’s Faculty of Education with hopes to gain the cooperation of the academic community and, together, take initial steps towards Ojibwe language restoration. After 30 years of language revitalization efforts, the Treaty 3 Tribal Councils had failed to produce any new Ojibwe speakers. Faced with the somber possibility of language extinction, the Councils coordinated their 28 communities, and decided to devote the next 15 years to reversing the stagnation of their language.

Gardner was pleased that the Treaty 3 Councils wanted to work with Lakehead faculty members, as universities typically do not have the best reputations in First Nations communities; Historically, she says, research done in Aboriginal communities has provided benefits for the researcher and the academic institution, rather than the community members. At this meeting, Gardner was inspired by the Treaty 3 Councils’ “astute” awareness and concern for their language, and wanted to be involved in a project that will actually benefit First Nations people.

Ethel Gardner is now leading a Research Team that includes Treaty 3 representatives, Professor John O’Meara, and three Lakehead graduate students, and they have recently been awarded a three-year, $225,000 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant. During this time, Gardner hopes to create a program that will enable Treaty 3 Chiefs to have support, resources, and an ability to advocate for the revitalization of their Ojibwe language for as long as is necessary. The SSHRC grant provides an incredibly valuable opportunity to work towards the realization of the Treaty 3 Councils’ ultimate goal: complete fluency in Ojibwe language for all Treaty 3 community members. And, the project is already under way.

The Treaty 3 Tribal Councils have identified individuals living in all 28 Treaty 3 communities who will act as community researchers. These individuals will receive Macintosh computers (chosen because of their video conferencing capabilities) and will be responsible for collecting raw language data from each of the communities (images, videos, audio, etc). As research assistants, the three Lakehead graduate students will also receive Macs, and they will be responsible for unpacking the data compiled by the community researchers, and writing reports. Gardner hopes this data collection will be completed before the end of 2008.

In the project’s second year, Gardner and her team will come together, and, using Joshua Fishman’s “eight stages of language revitalization” as a theoretical framework, make decisions based on the specific needs of the Treaty 3 communities. They will implement pilot language programs in Treaty 3 communities on an ongoing basis throughout the grant period, and the results of these programs will also influence the future direction of the Research Team. As a means to involve as many people as possible, Gardner plans to hold “language planning retreats” in each of the project’s three years. The retreats will bring everyone involved in the principal research, as well as Aboriginal Elders, and expert language technicians, together for discussion. The outcome of these retreats will undoubtedly influence the development of the project. Gardner also plans to hold conferences for any interested parties (e.g., parents, teachers, and administrators from school districts in Treaty 3 communities) that will showcase the Research Team’s data and future plans.

By the end of 2010, a comprehensive language revitalization program – that may incorporate language specific curriculum, Ojibwe radio stations, community resources, and language weeks, among other things – will be completed. Gardner hopes her program will prove to be a transferrable aid that may, ideally, benefit groups facing similar circumstances. Ethel Gardner is building a link between the academic world and Aboriginal communities, and thereby addressing historically based social inequities in this country. The program she creates will protect and revitalize the culture and language of Anishinaabe people for future generations.

Andrew Bryce is one of several students taking part in SPARK-Lakehead, a student writing program sponsored by The Chronicle-Journal.

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