'It's my identity': Forgotten language comes back over bannock and tea

Theodore Fontaine lost his language in his first year of residential school, where he was taught to feel ashamed of his culture, but 70 years later, he's relearning it at an informal weekly gathering at the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre.

'We became ashamed of having a culture, became ashamed of having a language,' residential school survivor says

Ted Fontaine and Nelson Sanderson share stories of learning the Ojibway langauge. (Jamie-Lee McKenzie/CBC)

Theodore Fontaine lost his language in his first year of residential school, but 70 years later, he's relearning it.

"I never thought that this day would come," said Fontaine.

Fontaine, who lived at Fort Alexander residential school for a decade starting when he was seven years old in 1948, is among a group of people who visit the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre for lunch every Friday to practise speaking Ojibway.

From noon to 1:30 p.m., the room fills with people laughing and telling stories, some in Ojibway and some in English, over bannock, soup and tea. They speak as much Ojibway as they can, which is the whole point of the gathering known as the Ojibwe Language Table.

It's not a class and it's open to everyone, regardless of how fluent they are.

Dawnis Kennedy (right) serves her homemade stew to the group at the Ojibway Language Table. (Jamie-Lee McKenzie/CBC)
"What we focus on is just having a place to practise, so it's not really a class, but you're welcome to come here. You're welcome to learn the language, you're welcome to listen to the language," said Dawnis Kennedy, the community connection worker at the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre, who's also learning to speak her traditional language.

There's no sign-up to join the language table; people can come whenever they feel they need to practice.

"We just want to make a space where it's safe for people to come and to listen, to learn, to share, and it doesn't matter what level of language you have," said Kennedy.

The group uses different activities help them practice. Games like Simon Says, played in Ojibway, and setting a time for speaking only in Ojibway helps them with both speaking and listening to the words.

They try to practice the language with every activity, including eating lunch.

"Usually we'll just eat — everybody's hungry. We have stew and we have bannock," said Kennedy. "We'll try to use a little bit of the language that we know around the food.

"Wiisinidaa means let's eat."

While serving stew, Kennedy, who tries to practise her language at every opportunity, asks if the group knows the Ojibway words for some of the ingredients.

"We've had a lot of people who say, 'Oh, I don't speak, I just understand,' but the more they come, actually, the more they speak," she said.

​"We start talking and my mind wakes up,"- said Sanderson

"Coming here is like coming back home, honestly, because I have the laughter and that's the way of our people. We laugh out loud," said Nelson Sanderson, who visits the Ojibwe Language Table as often as he can.

Sanderson grew up speaking Ojibway but has lost it. He hopes to become fluent again one day.

"We start talking and my mind wakes up," he said.

He looks forward to the day he can sit and chat with good friends using only Ojibway.

Indigenous people, regardless of their language level, are welcome to participate in the Ojibwe Language Table. (Jamie-Lee McKenzie/CBC)
At residential school, Fontaine grew to believe the Ojibway language would — and should — die.

"Hearing all the time that it was a savage language, it wasn't a real language, so we became ashamed of that," Fontaine said.

"The sadness about it is we became ashamed of being Indian, we became ashamed of having a culture, became ashamed of having a language … and that's the worst legacy we've left our kids."

Now hearing the language being spoken, especially by younger generations, Fontaine is more comfortable with his language and his culture.

Relearning the Ojibway and practicing it with other learners is helping bring back his identity.

"I'm comfortable now to know that this language was never a savage language. It was real and it's my identity," he said.


  • We initially reported that the Ojibwe Language Table is open to all Indigenous people. In fact, it's open to anyone who wants to speak Ojibwe.
    Apr 30, 2018 8:56 AM CT