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Ontario legislator makes history at Queen’s Park with speech, questions in Oji-Cree

A First Nation legislator addressed Queen’s Park in his own language on Tuesday, marking the first time a language other than English and French has officially been allowed in Ontario’s legislative chamber.

New Democrat Sol Mamakwa spoke to the Ontario legislature in Anishininiimowin, known in English as Oji-Cree.

For the first time, the Ontario legislature allowed, interpreted and transcribed a language other than English and French.

“It is a great event, a historic event,” he told the chamber, adding it was an “immense feeling” to address the legislature in the language of his ancestors.

Mamakwa stressed that many First Nations languages are going extinct, and he said he was speaking on behalf of Indigenous people who lost their languages as a result of Canada’s residential school system.

“The language was taken from us by the arrival of the settlers, colonization and residential schools,” he said. “They were punished for speaking their own language. They were given manual labour for speaking in their own language in residential schools.”

Mamakwa urged Indigenous people to keep their languages alive.

“Everyone that is listening: we need to revitalize our First Nations languages. Teach your children to speak their First Nation language and to be proud of it,” he said.

Mamakwa sparked the change after convincing Government House Leader Paul Calandra to allow him to speak at the legislature in the language his parents taught him.

About 100 supporters gathered in Toronto to watch the historic moment, including Mamakwa’s mother, siblings, friends and First Nation leaders. It was a gift to his mom, Kezia Mamakwa, who turned 79 on Tuesday.

He credited her in particular with teaching him to speak Oji-Cree.

“She used to take me out, into the wilderness, onto the land, teaching me the language. That’s why I am able to speak my First Nations language, because of my mom. She taught me,” he said.

WATCH | MPPs sing Happy Birthday to Kezia Mamakwa: 

Ontario MPP Sol Mamakwa is making history in the legislature — but first, birthday wishes for his mom

2 hours ago

Duration 0:44

Ontario NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa is making history, delivering the first speech in Anishininiimowin during Question Period at Queen’s Park. Before he started, politicians from all parties welcomed his mom, who’s celebrating her birthday.

Mamakwa, from Kingfisher Lake First Nation in northern Ontario, says the milestone is important because Indigenous people are losing their languages and his speech and question in the legislature will mark a step toward reconciliation.

“We receive strength in speaking our language. It is like a healing medicine as we stand together to continue fighting for our rights as First Nations people,” he said.

“Our strength is in our language, our people and our relationship to everything living.”

Calandra changed the standing orders on languages spoken in the legislative chamber to include any Indigenous language spoken in Canada.

The legislature brought in interpreters to translate Mamakwa’s words in real time to English, which was then translated into French.

NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa and Ontario's Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford embrace each other in the provincial legislature.
Mamakwa and Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford embrace in the provincial legislature, after Mamakwa became the first MPP to address the chamber in a language other than English or French. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Mamakwa’s words will also be represented in syllabics, an Indigenous writing system, in Hansard, the official record of proceedings at Queen’s Park.

He spoke for about 10 minutes in Anishininiimowin before taking the lead in the question period.

Mamakwa’s questions focused on a lack of long-term care beds in Sioux Lookout, Ont., despite a 2018 promise from Premier Doug Ford and his government that 76 new beds would be added in the remote northern community. 

In responding to Mamakwa, Ford publicly promised to build a new long-term care home in Sioux Lookout. He also told Mamakwa that he is “blazing a new trail” and all members of the legislature were proud of his address.

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