'I never denied it': Rita Corbiere on helping save her Ojibway language

This week, Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., awarded Rita Corbiere with an honourary doctorate of law for her efforts in preserving the Ojibway language.

Once forbidden from speaking Ojibway, Rita Corbiere honoured by Laurentian University for preserving language

Rita Corbiere was honoured by Laurentian University for her efforts in preserving Indigenous language. (@spaikan Twitter)

The role of teacher always came naturally to Rita Corbiere of Wikwemikong First Nation, Ont.

This week, Laurentian University awarded Corbiere with an honourary doctorate of law for her efforts in preserving the Ojibway language.

The 82-year old Corbiere said she can trace her motivation for preserving the language back to her earliest days in residential school in Spanish, Ont.

"I had only spoken Ojibway language at home," she said. "When I got there, the only way I could communicate with other girls was with English, and I had to learn that pretty fast."

Cobiere said that a few of the girls, when outside the earshot of the supervisors, spoke their own languages. Some of the younger girls weren't able to, and Corbiere felt like a part of their culture was being lost.

Eventually Corbiere and some other classmates thought they could bring their Indigenous culture, especially the language and traditional teachings, into the classroom.

It fell to Corbiere to instruct the others.

We started in small ways, teaching culture and the language.- Rita Corbiere

"I was a teacher," she said.  "I was the classroom teacher. We started in small ways, teaching culture and the language." 

"Then it got so that we were told we had to speak the language to the younger students. Which we did. But that really wasn't working. They couldn't understand, they weren't speaking the language."

Corbiere said she notices the loss of language and culture continuing, and that more of an effort is needed to have people speaking Ojibway at home.

"If we're not careful,we're going to lose it," she said.

Even though she retired in 1996, Corbiere is still doing her best to ensure Ojibway lives on.

"We have meetings once a week at the heritage association, and we plan," she said.  "And we talk and revive all the old, very old Anishnaabe words we remember, and we're making a  dictionary of all these words so there is a record, there are books around, where Ojibway is used."

"I have never denied ... there will be people who will say they don't speak it. But I speak my language. You have to go on and do what you have to do for the people growing up now."