Sault Ste. Marie honours Wiikwemkoong woman for efforts preserving Anishnaabemowin

For five decades Barbara Nolan has put her life into preserving Anishnaabemowin, and she was recently recognized for her efforts by the City of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. 

'I've been involved with language wherever, whenever and however' says Barbara Nolan

Educator Barbara Nolan says immersion programs are needed to help learn another language. (Submitted by Barbara Nolan)

For five decades Barbara Nolan has put her life into preserving Anishnaabemowin, and she was recently recognized for her efforts by the City of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. 

Nolan, who is originally from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, was given the city's medal of merit, its highest distinction given to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the community. 

"I was just taken aback by it and I just feel so honoured," said Nolan. 

"Since 1972, I've been involved in language wherever, whenever and however."

LISTEN Barbara Nolan speaks with CBC Radio's Up North about her award:

The City of Sault Ste Marie has announced a new recipient for its Medal of Merit. Elder Barbara Nolan is being recognized by the city for her leadership and contributions to the region. Nolan lives in Garden River First Nation, and is best known as an advocate for the revitalization of the Anishinaabemowin language. Jonathan reached Barbara this week to talk about the medal - and her work. He started by asking her how she found out she was being honoured.

When Nolan was five, she and her sisters were sent to residential school in Spanish, Ont. She said they went home during the summer and for Christmas, which helped keep her connected to the language and culture despite the school's attempts to assimilate her. 

While working as a child and family counsellor for the school board in Sault Ste. Marie, she said children from Garden River First Nation would tell her they didn't like learning French because it wasn't their language.

She was approached by a principal who was wondering why the children were doing so poorly in the class and she shared what they had told her. Nolan was asked to develop a curriculum for Anishinaabemowin. 

The curriculum was approved by the school board and Nolan began teaching until a certified language teacher was found. 

Barbara Nolan was recently awarded the Sault Ste. Marie's medal of merit. (Barbara Nolan/ Facebook)

Nolan currently works at the Garden River First Nation daycare, teaching children the language. Over the last five decades she's taught at universities in the United States and locally in the Algoma district. 

Nolan was nominated for the medal of merit by Karen Bell, a police constable with the Anishinabek Police Service. Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Christian Provenzano said a committee chooses the recipient by unanimous decision.

"We're learning the importance of culture and that's because of leaders like Barbara, who persevered, who celebrated, who frankly kept their culture alive, kept their language alive, celebrated it, shared it and taught it," Provenzano said.

Nolan's daughter Colleen said her mother is a humble person and continues to teach because of her love of passing along the language. 

"I think a lot of times parents are taught to say that you appreciate or you value your kids and you're proud of them," she said. 

"But a lot of times as children we often don't say, 'I'm proud of you, mom,' or 'I'm proud of you, dad.'" 

She said she is very proud of her mother's accomplishments.


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.