Wiikwemkoong woman receives city of Sault Ste. Marie Medal of Merit for her language efforts

Barbara Nolan

GARDEN RIVER – Barbara Nolan, originally from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, an Indigenous role model, advocate and residential school survivor, has been awarded the 2021 City of Sault Ste. Marie’s Medal of Merit for her efforts to promote the Ojibway language.

“The Sault Ste. Marie Medal of Merit selection committee is pleased to announce the 2021 Medal of Merit recipient. This year’s recipient is Barbara Nolan in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the community. An Indigenous role model and advocate, Barbara’s work and commitment to the advancement of the Anishinaabemowin language revitalization efforts, Indigenous education and excellence in lifelong learning has had a significant impact in supporting Indigenous learners.”

“I was absolutely surprised when the Mayor of Sault Ste. Marie (Christian Provenzano) told me I had won this award,” Ms. Nolan told The Expositor last week. “My passion is to revitalize our Anishinaabemowin language and I promote and encourage people to speak and use the language.”

“There are still a lot of (Anishinaabemowin) speakers in Wiikwemkoong and M’Chigeeng (First Nation). There are still places vibrant with the language. But in the Sault Ste. Marie area it is not as prevalent, if someone speaks to me and if I answer back in Anishinaabemowin, sometimes they don’t understand or try to use the language.”

“Yes, I developed the first Native as a second language curriculum in Canada,” said Ms. Nolan.  In 1972, “I was working with the separate school board in Sault Ste. Marie (as the Garden River representative). Kids were going to school in Batchewana and Garden River, and I was working with the separate school system. I visited students and parents. But it was the kids, they share a lot when they are on recess and you are doing yard duty. I would speak to them in our language and they would say, ‘why don’t you teach us our language, miss.’ So, I talked to the principal who was in favour of this. We had to get a curriculum written, and once I completed this I presented it to the board for approval and then the ministry of education for permission to have it used in schools.”

“Then we had to find a teacher for the program, and they asked me,” said Ms. Nolan. “I was with the Garden River band by that time (the band had assumed administrative control of its own education program). The Band Chief said yes it could be taught in the local school, but only if you teach the program. I taught the first few months before a person from Sagamok was hired as the teacher.”

“I had originally developed a 10-unit course plus later an additional five lessons in our language,” said Ms. Nolan.

Barbara Nolan (nee Pheasant) was born in Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. Raised by her grandparents, she learned the traditional language of her heritage prior to learning English. From age 5-9, she attended a residential school in Spanish, Ontario. She returned home to complete elementary school then moved to North Bay for high school. After grade 12, she moved to Toronto where she found employment in the clerical field.

“I am originally from Wiikwemkoong-South Bay, and my sisters still live there,” Ms. Nolan told the Expositor. 

In 1970 she met her husband, Tom Nolan, and moved to Garden River First Nation. In 1972 she worked for the Separate School Board in Sault Ste. Marie as the Garden River representative.

Barbara Nolan

“As a residential school survivor, she has dedicated her time to working with numerous Indigenous organizations and communities in the development and promotion of language revitalization and retention initiatives,” the city’s citation reads. “ Barbara has made it her life mission to preserve the Anishinaabemowin language and has been teaching the language locally since the early 70s,” the Sault release explained. “Barbara has held the positions of Native School Counsellor and Elder-In-Residence/Cultural Advisor at Sault College for the past eight years. She works with students in meaningful ways to strengthen cultural knowledge and language acquisition through intergenerational sharing and participation.”

Ms. Nolan was also instrumental in establishing and delivering Anishinaabemowin immersion at the Garden River Child Care Centre. “Within the past year, Barbara gifted the centre with its Anishinaabe Spirit name ‘Abinoojinyag Onji.’ She felt that everything the centre does should be for the children, and that its work is to leave the children with a sense of who they are and where they come from. As the children spend time with Barbara, she shares stories with them, helping to retain their language.”

Recently, Ms. Nolan was appointed the Anishinabek Nation Anishinaabemowin Commissioner. In this role, she advises the Anishinaabek Nation leadership and the public on the importance of Anishinaabemowin protection, retention, revitalization initiatives and its use. She wrote the first Native as a second language curriculum in Canada, is a founding member of the Ontario Native Education Counselling Association and first president and is the first president and founding member of the Sault Ste. Marie Indian Friendship Centre.

“The medal of merit is a fitting recognition of Barbara’s great leadership and significant contributions to the community,” said Sault Mayor Christian Provenzano. “Elders and knowledge keepers have invaluable knowledge, skills and wisdom based in Indigenous history, tradition, culture, and ceremony. Barbara has inspired hundreds of Indigenous people to regain their language and celebrate their traditions, and she has shared her language with and taught many non-Indigenous people. We need to collectively study Indigenous history and culture so that we can learn from it, celebrate it and respect it. Barbara is helping us make significant progress in this regard and I am grateful for her continued efforts.”

The City of Sault Ste. Marie awards the medal of merit annually to individuals or groups who have achieved exceptional meritorious honours in athletics, cultural or academic fields or who make extraordinary contributions to the community.