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'A very momentous day': MPP makes history with Oji-Cree speech in Ontario legislature

Premier Doug Ford said he's 'proud of the NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa, as did several others who marked the occasion at Queen's Park on Tuesday
NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa holds an eagle feather as he stands in the Ontario legislature in Toronto, on Tuesday, May 28, 2024, and speaks in his language, Oji-Cree, the first time in history that Indigenous language has been used in the provincial legislature to ask a question of the government.

When Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa rose in the Ontario legislature on Tuesday and made history by speaking in his first language, Oji-Cree, he felt like he was breaking the rules. 

"When I began my statement ... I thought I was breaking the laws and the rules of this house, and I tried to remind myself that no there's nothing wrong with this, we are allowed to speak," said the NDP MPP, who delivered a 10-minute speech about the importance of keeping Indigenous languages alive. It was the first time the legislature officially allowed an Indigenous language to be spoken. 

"This day is a very momentous day, and I never thought I would be speaking my language in this place. I've been here six years, I don't know what took them so long."

In his speech, Mamakwa said Anishininiimowin, also known as Oji-Cree, is becoming extinct. 

"The language was taken from us by the arrival of the settlers, and the colonization and residential schools," he said in Oji-Cree, adding that children in residential schools were often forced to do manual labour or put soap in their mouths for speaking their own language. "So today I'm very happy and thankful and proud."

image_123650291-1Mamakwa credited his mother Kezia for still being able to speak Oji-Cree.

"She used to take me out into the wilderness, into the land, teaching me the language," he said, adding that he was also thinking of his late father, who would have been proud. 

His mother, who turned 79 on Tuesday, celebrated her birthday at Queen's Park, watching her son make history while sitting in the gallery inside the chamber. 

Mamakwa's speech was translated into English and French in real-time, as were his queries during question period. 

A recent change to the standing orders — the rules that govern proceedings at the legislature — means MPPs no longer have to ask permission to speak an Indigenous language in the house.

"Every member desiring to speak must rise in his or her place and address the Speaker, in either English, French, or an Indigenous language spoken in Canada. If a member wishes to address the House in an Indigenous language, they shall, prior to taking their seat for the first time, notify the Clerk of the House of the language in which they intend to speak so the Speaker may arrange appropriate interpretation and translation capabilities," the updated rules state. 

Mamakwa also said he hopes other legislatures and the federal parliament will take similar steps and enable Indigenous languages to be spoken there.

Prior to Mamakwa's speech, MPPs from all political stripes gave the legislator's mother a standing ovation and sang "Happy Birthday" to her. 

Following his address, Premier Doug Ford crossed the aisle to speak with the NDP MPP and shake his hand. 

Legislators also put aside partisanship when Mamakwa asked the lead question during question period in Oji-Cree, again receiving a standing ovation from all parties. 

He asked about the government's 2018 promise to build 76 long-term care beds in Sioux Lookout, which is more than 300 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.

"You know, some things are bigger than politics, and I believe that's one of those moments this morning," Long-Term Care Minister Stan Cho said, before continuing with his response and inviting Mamakwa to his office to discuss the "challenge that are facing the allocation" of the 76 beds. 

In response to Mamakwa's follow-up question on the issue, Premier Ford stood to respond. 

cp171725683"I had you in my office yesterday, told you how proud I am of you, how you’re blazing a new trail. No one’s ever done this, what you’re doing today. I just want to tell you how proud I am of you, how proud everyone here in the legislature is and how proud everyone in the First Nations are," Ford said. 

"I appreciate your passion in Sioux Lookout. I went up to Sioux Lookout — you remember I went up there? And I committed that I’m going to build that long-term care home. I’m committing today, in the public: We will be building those beds. We’ll be building a home for Sioux Lookout."

Ford's response led to another standing ovation from all parties, with Mamakwa leaving his seat to meet the premier in the middle of the legislature's floor for a hug. 

Once he returned to his seat, Mamakwa was all smiles as he looked up at the public gallery with a thumbs-up. 

The NDP MPP later called that moment and commitment from the premier "important."

Reflecting on the day, Mamakwa said it was "surreal." 

"I could not believe it," he said, going on to acknowledge the First Nation leaders, elders and ancestors. 

Several people who came to Queen's Park to mark the occasion and support Mamakwa spoke highly of the MPP's accomplishment and the significance of the day's events.

"To hear your language being spoken at the most colonial institution in this province is something that many of us never thought we would ever witness," said Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of Nishnawbe Aski Nation. "I'm just so proud of my dear brother Sol, just for his leadership and his vision."

He said what Mamakwa did at Queen's Park should inspire the community to speak their language in their homes, schools and communities so that they can help "revitalize it again."

Government House Leader Paul Calandra called in "a historic moment."

"This is something that he had been widely talking about for a very, very, very long time and it's a good day and I'm very, very happy for him," he told reporters. image_50436353

The change to the standing orders came about after Mamakwa said at a reception that he couldn't speak in his language in the chamber, Calandra said. 

"Truth be told, I got irritated. I said, 'Sol that's not true, of course you can speak your language upstairs.' And then I was corrected by one of my staff members who was with me who said no, it's only French and English," he said, adding that the two then discussed over breakfast how they could make this happen.

Calandra said the goal is to make the process of speaking Indigenous languages in the chamber "seamless" so that MPPs don't need to give notice to the clerk.

"It's about time," said Jonathan, Mamakwa's brother who got emotional as Indigenous representatives and supporters gathered on the front lawn of Queen's Park on Tuesday morning. "It's decency — we need to be treated and looked at with decency." 

Esther Sakakeep, his sister who flew in from Kingfisher Lake First Nation, said it was a "very special event for us" and that their community and those living in surrounding areas would be tuning in to watch Mamakwa's speech. 

Mamakwa said he planned to continue speaking his language in the house. 

"Once they were properly organized, I will continue to speak my language ... I've got to keep speaking my language in order not to lose it," he said. "It's not just for show, it's a way of life, it's who we are, it's who I am," he said. 

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