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Reviving the Ojibwe language, one kindergarten kid at a time

Kindergarteners at Antler River Elementary School on Chippewas of the Thames First Nation are taking part in a new Ojibwe language immersion program.

When an elder dies, "it's like the whole library is gone," says teacher Betsy Kechego

Teacher Betsy Kechego said she's teaching her students the language of her grandfathers and grandmothers, so they can keep it going for future generations. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

When Betsy Kechego sees her kindergarten students speaking Ojibwe, they look "happy, confident and alive."

"They're really happy to be who they are and speaking their language," said Kechego, who teaches at Antler River Elementary School on Chippewas of the Thames First Nation.

Kechego's kindergarten class is one of two taking part in a new Ojibwe language immersion program at Antler River, which started for the first time in September.

The Ojibwe immersion program is based in part on the Anishinaabemowin Revival Program​ at Lakeview School on M'Chigeeng First Nation, with additions from Kechego, who has taken part in an immersion program through the University of Ottawa.

The program also received help from education director Crystal Kechego and kindergarten instructors Nancy Pelletier and Lisa Young.

"I see it as something big, and it's going to thrive because we have so many people that believe in the language piece as a main core of our identity," said Crystal Kechego.

Students are learning words for foods and fruits in Ojibwe this year. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

The second semester of the Ojibwe kindergarten program coincides with the 2019 United Nations' year of Indigenous Languages. The UN has said its aim is to promote and protect Indigenous languages, and to improve the lives of those who speak them.

"The ongoing loss of indigenous languages is particularly devastating, as the complex knowledge and cultures they foster are increasingly being recognized as strategic resources for good governance, peacebuilding, reconciliation, and sustainable development," the UN said in an online statement.

That loss of language can be felt at Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, where the impact of residential schools has meant that the community has no fluent Ojibwe speakers, Kechego said.

That's meant Kechego and other colleagues who work in language revitalization have had to travel to nearby communities to learn the language.

With that in mind, Kechego said she believes the time has come for Indigenous language schools in Canada to be funded equally with English and French immersion schools, especially since neither of those languages originally emerged in Canada. 

Many of Kechego's language resources have to be handmade and it can be difficult to move forward with Indigenous education when there isn't funding in place to support it.

"Put your full support behind them, because they're really struggling to rebuild or revitalize a language that's almost gone," she said.

"That's a sad day that you see an elder pass away in our communities, because it's like the whole library is gone. The whole library just burnt down."

For now, Kechego said her community is fighting to keep the Ojibwe language alive on their own terms. Chippewas of the Thames First Nation signed a language declaration in 2010, and today offers an Ojibwe language daycare as well as programs for adults.

As for the students at Antler River Elementary School, Kechego said she hopes to soon expand the program to first-graders, and to gradually add one immersion grade every year.

"Hopefully we can keep moving with that and be full immersion," she said.

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