Published on May 26, 2024 by Global News

Decades after being punished in a residential school for speaking his own language, Sol Mamakwa will hold the powerful to account at Ontario’s legislature in the very same language past governments tried to bury.

On Tuesday, Mamakwa, the only First Nation legislator at Queen’s Park, will rise in the legislative chamber – with his mother, sister, brothers, friends and elders watching from the gallery – and ask a question in Anishininiimowin, known in English as Oji-Cree.

For the first time in its history, the Ontario legislature will allow, interpret and transcribe a language other than English and French.

It will also be a birthday gift to his mom, Kezia Mamakwa, who turns 79 that day, and a nod to his late father, Jerry Mamakwa.

“Language is nationhood, language is identity, language is where history comes from and language is me and my people,” Sol Mamakwa, a 53-year-old NDP legislator, said in an interview.

“It’s important because there’s so many of us who are losing our languages. I think it’s a step toward reconciliation and a step toward reviving our languages.”

The federal government in decades past, with help from the Catholic and Protestant churches, tried to kill Indigenous languages through various means, including residential schools that ripped children away from their families and forced them to speak English. Indigenous languages have been slowly dying over the past century.

About 25 people from Mamakwa’s Kingfisher Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario will travel to Toronto to watch him make history along with 75 other guests, including Indigenous leaders.

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Photo by Nathan Denette of The Canadian Press