Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 13: Language and Culture (13-17)

Ontario MPPs can now speak their own Indigenous languages at Queen’s Park

March 27, 2024

Kiiwetinoong MPP recalls being punished for speaking Anishinaabemowin in residential school

A person wearing a dark winter jacket and moose-hide gloves with a fur trim and beaded eagles on the front of them stands outside on a snowy day.
Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa is seen in Eabametoong First Nation in this February 2024 file photo. Mamakwa says he plans to bring his mother to Queen’s Park so she can hear him address the Speaker entirely in Anishinaabemowin for the first time. (Marc Doucette/CBC

CBC Indigenous: For the first time in the Ontario Legislature’s history, MPPs can now speak Indigenous languages at Queen’s Park.

While members were previously allowed to speak one of Canada’s two official languages – English or French – an amendment passed Tuesday morning allows them to also address the Speaker in an Indigenous language spoken in Canada.

For Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong, it means speaking a language that was forbidden when he attended residential school.

“I remember sitting in detention. I remember doing chores as punishment because of who I am, because of me speaking my language,” Mamakwa said Tuesday while addressing the legislature.

“These racist and colonizing policies led to language loss.”

If members wish to address the legislature in an Indigenous language, they must notify the clerk ahead of time so interpretation and translation services can be made available.

He was punished in residential school for speaking Anishinaabemowin — now he can speak it at Queen’s Park

WATCH | Kiiwetinoong MPP can now speak his own language at Queen’s Park 

2 days ago, Duration 23:56

Ontario MPP Sol Mamakwa reacts to changes at Queen’s Park which will allow him and other MPPs to speak an Indigenous language during house business. He and other language speakers say this is a small, but necessary change.

Click on the following link to view the video:

Mamakwa said once the change is implemented in the coming months, he hopes to bring his mother to Queen’s Park so she can hear him speak in Anishinaabemowin.

“This is for the people that have lost their language,” he said.

Encouraging language education, exposure

Language preservation is a key tenet of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, which resulted in the Indigenous Languages Act receiving Royal Assent in 2019.

While this change is new to Ontario, there are other legislative assemblies in Canada — such as in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories — that routinely have members speaking Indigenous languages. 

Provincially, Ontario’s Ministry of Education has developed a curriculum for teaching Indigenous languages, and in the 2023-2024 school year, the province mandated Indigenous curriculum for students from Grades 1 to 3.

“Our people are reclaiming ownership of our language. We have developed and implemented full-immersion education in our community schools. We also have developed and established bilingual, bicultural education in our schools,” Mamakwa said.

There’s still a long way to go, but Mamakwa points to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, which says Indigenous people have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.

Before this point, when he could only speak English or French at Queen’s Park, “this has been a form of forced assimilation right here in this legislature,” Mamakwa said.

Minister of Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford takes part in a cabinet swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the Legislature, in Toronto, on Jun. 24, 2022.
Minister of Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford is seen in a June 2022 file photo. Rickford says being exposed to languages is the best way to not only learn them, but to understand their cultural significance. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario’s Minister of Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs, Greg Rickford, called the amendment an important step in Ontario’s path toward reconciliation.

“You can read it from a book and you can take it from a teacher, but the best way to learn a language is to be able to be exposed to it, to hear it, and to understand its important ties to its culture and heritage from where it has come,” Rickford said. 

He also spoke of his time living in predominantly Ojibway communities in northern Ontario and hearing the language spoken.

“It’s not an easy language to understand but it is beautiful. It’s full of joy. It’s full of laughter. It deals with pain but it’s spoken freely and it’s a wonderful thing to be around,” he said.

Growing up in the suburbs of Ottawa in the 1980s and 90s, Orléans MPP Stephen Blais admits he was not exposed to First Nations culture or taught about it in school. As he learns more about Canada’s colonial legacy, Blais told the legislature he recognizes the pain created by assimilation — his own family having lost their connection to their Francophone roots.

“I’m very hopeful that efforts that the member from Kiiwetinoong and all of us are trying to push forward … will be a small step to ensuring that [assimilation] stops, as it relates to our First Nations people, and that progress can be made to continue to protect their language and their culture and soul,” Blais said.

Preserving cultural, history

Anishinaabemowin is more than just words — as Mamakwa explained, the language connects people deeply to their cultural roots, traditions and histories. People’s identities are linked to their land through traditional place names.

“If we lose our language, we lose all of our histories,” he said.

Ojibway language speaker, Elder and educator Esther Diabo has spent years trying to prevent that from happening. A residential school survivor and member of Whitesand First Nation, she was ecstatic when she learned of the changes being made at Queen’s Park.

“Today is a great day in Canada,” Diabo said.

A person wearing an orange shirt stares ahead.
Esther Diabo of Whitesand First Nation is an Ojibway language teacher in Thunder Bay, Ont. She says she used to be ashamed of her language, and that changes like the introduction of Indigenous languages at Queen’s Park are an important step toward promoting and preserving traditional languages. (Mia Sheldon/CBC)

Hearing Mamakwa’s words reminded her of the shame she felt for speaking her language — until she went back to school to become a language teacher.

“Part of that shame that I experienced in residential school, I still see that shame in our schools today when [students] come to realize that they’re actually learning to read and write in the Ojibway language,” Diabo said. 

Diabo dreams in Ojibway, and she often wakes up in tears worrying about the language dying, with few Elders left in her community fluent in it.

“It’s our world views, it’s everything we are as a group of people,” she said. “No one can translate exactly what you’re saying in Ojibway because it gets lost in translation.”

When Mamakwa mentioned bringing his mother to Queen’s Park, Diabo thought of her own mother, who has passed.

“When I speak the language, I still feel her in me, I feel her guidance in me — and my grandmother,” she said.

“It’s very, very powerful that we try to keep the Ojibway language alive.”


Sarah Law, Reporter

Sarah Law is a CBC News reporter based in Thunder Bay, Ont., and has also worked for newspapers and online publications elsewhere in the province. Have a story tip? You can reach her at