Efforts underway by Sudbury university to keep Ojibwe language going

There are some Indigenous dialects that are in danger of disappearing. That's why the United Nations wants to raise awareness of language preservation, naming 2019 the year of Indigenous Languages.

New Intro to Nishnaabemowin offered for students as professor works on dictionary of terms

Mary Ann Corbiere is an Indigenous language instructor at the University of Sudbury. She is the creator and teachor for the course, Introductory to Nishnaabemowin, which began in the fall of 2018. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

There are some Indigenous dialects that are in danger of disappearing.

That's why the United Nations wants to raise awareness of language preservation, naming 2019 the year of Indigenous Languages.

Nishnaabemowin is the Ojibwe language spoken by Indigenous people locally, around Lake Huron and eastern Ontario.

The University of Sudbury began an introductory course this past semester focusing on this Indigenous language.

That course was created and is taught by professor Mary Ann Corbiere, originally from Wikiwemikong First Nation.

She says she grew up hearing Nishnaabemowin. It was in 1989 when she first began to preserve the language. She started writing down words she recalled from her home community, which had never been documented before.

That comprehensive dictionary of terms started with post-it notes stuck on pages ordered alphabetically within a binder.

Corbiere says now about half of the 10,000 words are compiled online. She adds that the Nishnaabemowin dictionary is not complete, since she still keeps adding words to it.

Mary Ann Corbiere, an Indigenous language instructor at the University of Sudbury, began the Nishnaabemowin dictionary using post-it notes alphabetically organized in a binder. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

Along with the dictionary resource, Corbiere also teaches her students about sentence composition within the language so they can interact with others who also speak Nishnaabemowin.

"You need to go beyond just learning vocabulary," she said.

"You have to figure out, okay how do I put these words together in a way that can work in an actual conversation."

Many reasons why

Corbiere says students have many different reasons why they want to learn the language.

For some it's because they weren't exposed to it when they were younger, while others want to be able to communicate with their aging relatives.

"They are really wanting to get their language back," Corbiere says.

"It just helps them reinforce their identity as Indigenous peoples, as Nishnaabe peoples."

But Corbiere says like any language, it's also about knowing and understanding what others are saying when they're conversing nearby.  

Connect to culture

Lee Czechowski, from Wasauksing First Nation, recently completed the introductory course at the university, and is already registered for the next one available.

The Indigenous university student says learning Nishnaabemowin was a way to connect with their culture. 

"I wanted to find this connection to my heritage and to my history that had been missing."

Czechowski says they always loved learning languages, and jumped at the chance to learn the language that their ancestors spoke.

"It's kind of a way that I understand different cultures."

Reading Nishnaabemowin is no longer a problem for Czechowski, but they're really looking forward to learning more in the next course.

"It's a basic understanding right now, but things are starting to stick," Czechowski said.

"Shedding a light on the urgency"

"We're really in an important pivotal moment right now," instructor Jessica Shonias said.

She is originally from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation and teaches language courses for distance learners at the University of Sudbury.

Shonias says there are fewer people speaking the Indigenous language, and many of them are aging.

"A generous estimate is we have like 20 years for Nishnaabemowin."

She calls it 'one last kick at the can' to get this Indigenous language from those who still  speak it fluently, before the last generation of speakers passes away.

"To me [UN's 2019 year of Indigenous Languages] is shedding a light on the urgency of Indigenous languages across Canada."


Angela Gemmill


Angela Gemmill is a CBC journalist who has covered news in Sudbury, Ont., for 15 years. Connect with her on Twitter @AngelaGemmill. Send story ideas to