KTEI and Canadore launch Ontario’s first Anishinabemowin immersion ECE program

SHEGUIANDAH—Early childhood language learning can establish a foundation that will last a lifetime as young children are uniquely equipped to learn languages. With indigenous languages under pressure across the globe, and barely a handful of the hundreds of indigenous languages in North America expected to last into the next century, the clock is ticking on efforts to preserve and revitalize First Nations languages—but thanks to an historic collaboration between Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute (KTEI) and Canadore College, new generations of early childhood educators will be uniquely equipped to join the front lines in shoring up Anishinabemowin.

The two educational institutions made a formal announcement of an immersion-based early childhood educator program during the annual Three Fires Confederacy gathering in the traditional roundhouse at the Sheguiandah Heritage Park. This is a one-of-a-kind Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development certified post-secondary program, the ‘Early Childhood Education Anishinabemowin (ECE-A)’ program, and is the first to be established in the province.

The administrators of the two educational institutions determined that it would be “most fitting and appropriate” to make the announcement at the Three Fires Confederacy, where the introduction of teaching lodges within educational systems was discussed by KTEI elder-in-residence Josh Eshkawkogan.

Also raising excitement at the announcement was the possibility of the construction of a teaching lodge for KTEI that may also be on the horizon, noted Mr. Eshkawkogan. The lodge would be intended not only for the use of students and faculty of the new ECE-A program, but for other community organizations and groups as well.

“Bringing back and acknowledging our ways of learning and knowing within our education systems, and most importantly, teaching our children in our own language, Anishinabemowin, is putting into action what our elders have told us to do for so many years,” said Stephanie Roy, KTEI executive director. “Together, the great team members of Canadore College and our staff have yet again demonstrated their commitment to higher education and indigenous learning with this new program—and we are thrilled to support First Nation community schools and early learning centres everywhere by providing this opportunity.”

Ms. Roy gave much of the credit to the development of the program to the KTEI team, particularly to Rhonda Hopkins, Anishinabe Odziiwin team leader and immersion instruction, and Mary Wabano, associate dean of the School of Indigenous Studies at Canadore College. “Mary has been a strong and committed advocate and supporter within the college system for aboriginal institutes to create new post-secondary programs where language and worldview is a cornerstone to indigenous student identity, infused with our cultural traditions as a central foundation to overall well-being for students,” said Ms. Roy.

“We truly teach our children our value system and lessons through our language,” said Ms. Wabuno. “We are beyond merely translating from English to Anishinabemowin and it is this kind of work that further support our communities in their language and immersion goals.”

Canadore College vice-president enrollment management, student services, recruiting and marketing Shawn Chorney was on hand for the announcement and he too had high praise for Ms. Wabuno and Ms. Hopkins in “our journey together.”

Mr. Chorney noted the challenges that have been faced in creating the program and managing to fit the round peg of an Anishinabemowin and culture based program into the square holes of the provincial bureaucracy. “We were told that we could not have the program descriptions and course numbers in Ojibwe,” he recalled. “We said that was the province’s problem, not ours.”

Ms. Wabuno broke the ice in her remarks during the announcement. “You are probably asking yourself what a Cree woman is doing speaking Ojibwe up here,” she said, noting that she was far from Moosonee, the territory of her birth. “I have lived in your territory longer than I have lived in my own.” Ms. Wabuno has been living and working in Nipissing for most of her career.

In a recent visit to her home community, Ms. Wabuno made a disturbing observation. “People my age are the last of the fluent speakers,” she said. “For the younger generations, Cree is a second language. English is their first language.”

While the importance of the immersion program will be felt within its first generation of students, Ms. Wabuno pointed out that the real impact will come with the second, third and fourth generations. “Not just in reserve schools, but in provincial schools across the province,” she said.

Ms. Wabuno was described as being the “most feared” of the KTEI team, a description she wore as a badge of honour. “Sometimes I speak boldly,” she admitted. “I have no filters, I just say things—but it seems to work. They (provincial government bureaucrats) have a lot of questions and we had answers that didn’t fit in their neat little boxes.”

Ms. Wabuno and Ms. Hopkins were presented with a number of symbolic gifts including toddler moccasins, figurines dressed in jingle and shawl dancer regalia and medicines.

The two-year Early Childhood Education—Anishinaabemowin diploma program has been approved for delivery at Canadore’s partner institutions, Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute (KTEI) in M’Chigeeng First Nation and Seven Generations Educational Institute in Fort Frances. The Ontario College two-year diploma in Anishinaabe Early Childhood Education is delivered solely in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) over four semesters. The Anishinaabe knowledge based program meets all the standards of the Ontario Early Childhood Competency guidelines and was officially approved by the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (formerly known as the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities) earlier this month. The first cohort(s) are expected to be delivered at partner sites starting in the 2016-2017 academic year.