Actions and Commitments

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

We were punished for speaking our languages and banned from using them in the legislature. My speech turned a page

June 11, 2024

I spoke for all of the First Nations children, who were stolen away from their lands, their families and communities, from everything they knew. 

Sol Mamakwa.JPG
NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa holds an eagle feather as he stands in the Ontario legislature on May 28, 2024, and speaks in his language for the first time in history that Indigenous language has been used in the provincial legislature to ask a question of the government. Chris Young/The Canadian Press

By Sol Mamakwa Contributor

Toronto Star: May 28 was a historic day in Ontario. I finally spoke in my language, in Queen’s Park, which has been heard on this land for tens of thousands of years. Our people say, since time began. 

May 28 was the first time I was able to speak my language, Anishininiimowin, in the settler government, the government that says it speaks for all of us. Yet it has not.

I spoke for all of those First Nations people who were punished and abused for speaking their language. From the time the settlers made their way to our lands and unjustly and unlawfully, claimed them as theirs under the false pretence of terra nullius — the idea from Christianity that this land belonged to no one, so it was free for the taking.

But this land we stand on, this land took care of us, it nurtured our families for generations and generations.

I spoke for all of the First Nations children, who were stolen away from their lands, their families and communities, from everything they knew. These children were frightened, they were lonely, and they were taken away to places where they were told they could not speak unless they spoke English. 

Once at these so-called schools, usually hundreds of miles away from home, they were separated from their siblings, and I know these children were terrified. They were afraid to speak because if they did, they’d be beaten. They could not express themselves; they couldn’t show who they truly were. 

For most of these children their language was taken away, beaten out of them, and so were their spirits, who they are, their dreams and hopes, their love and their language.

I spoke for all those children, for those who survived, who made it home to parents they could no longer talk to because the children had lost their language. 

I spoke for those children who became adults, living under a foreign system, one that abused us and stole us from our very identities.

I spoke for the thousands of First Nations children who never made it home from these Indian residential schools. For the thousands who died in Indian hospitals or tuberculosis sanatoriums.

I spoke for all our ancestors who never made it home.

I spoke for those children in one of our languages because I am one of those children.

They are me. I am them. Our spirits speak as one.

Our children are meant to grow up with our languages, laughing and joking with our parents, grandparents and friends. Our children are meant to learn our ways of life from the land that gives us our language. 

I was lucky. I had my summers. I had my time on the land with my family. My beautiful mother, and my late father. I was thinking of him. My sisters, brothers and I had our most cherished memories with our parents, living by the lakes and rivers of our lands, learning to fish, to hunt, to trap. This kept the language alive in us. We are lucky. We know many did not have this opportunity.

May 28 was a day to reflect, to remember, and to celebrate — a day when we began to turn a page in Ontario’s dark history.

After all of this time, for over 150 years in Ontario, since this legislature existed, has it been forbidden for me or any other First Nations person to speak our language on this land in this legislature? 

I hope that this moment of change encourages others to learn their language and that all other Indigenous languages survive. 

Our people need our languages; they are medicine.

We need our Indigenous languages in the curriculum, taught in schools, and included in the history books and literature classes. 

We need Indigenous language classes besides English and French. This is the road to a just society. 

Sol Mamakwa, from Kingfisher Lake First Nation, is a survivor of the Indian residential school system and is the the MPP for Kiiwetinoong.