Skip to content

COLUMN: To Indigenous people, election issues have never changed

Ojibwe language captures the disappointment of generations of broken promises to Indigenous peoples, laments columnist
vote ballot box
Stock image

Another federal election cycle is upon us. And to the Indigenous, the issues remain the same. In fact, they are as old as our relationship with Canada itself.

Before we were placed on the Shkonjigan (Sh-kohn-jih-gun), meaning leftovers, which is the Ojibwe word for 'Reserves', we had everything we needed. We had lived off of the bounty that the land had provided us for millennia.

Everything we knew we learned from the land itself. Our word for teaching is, Akinoomaagewin (Ah-kih-noh-maw-geh-win) meaning teaching from the land, and that is how we learned to survive and to live in harmony with the natural world.

But, contact and encroachment of our ancestral territory changed all of that. The record of those changes are contained in the Ojibwe language itself.

For example, prior to contact we had enjoyed the purest and most pristine waters in all the world. Our word for water is Nbi (Nnn-bih) which literally translates as, our “place.” Water is life, and when we are carried in our mother’s womb, we are carried in water. It is life-giving in so many ways.

However, when Europeans desired more of our ancestral lands they began to drive us from our “place.” They poisoned our water sources to keep us away. That changed our word for water to “Nbiish” (Nnn-beesh)

In Ojibwe, we can’t be profane. The language is structured that way. But we can speak badly of someone or something and when we add “sh” to a word. This means that of which we are speaking of is now spoken of in a derogatory sense. So poisoned or dirty water became Nbiish.

Even today, that continued encroachment leaves the Indigenous with unclean water throughout Canada. Far too many First Nations have to boil their water before drinking it. Far too many First Nations have no access to clean water at all. It has perpetually been an election issue. And that issue has evolved to change our language.

Another instance of that is our word for White people. It started out as Ewaabshkizit (Eh-waab-shki-zit), meaning he or she who is white. It has evolved to Shaagenaash (Shaw-gen-awsh) which means, he or she does not mean what they say.

After hundreds of years of promises to help us rectify historic deficiencies of infrastructure including Nbiish on our Shkoonjigan we are left with the same Indigenous election issues time and again.

We would hope that by now potential candidates would have bothered to educate themselves on these issues. Judging by the lack of knowledge from candidates for prime minister and of those at the local level, this may not happen anytime soon.

In 2021, we learned of hundreds (now thousands) of young Indigenous children had been buried in the ground at residential schools across the country. It is heartbreaking to think that they have come back to teach of these historical wrongs from the very land that taught them their culture. The very least we can do is heed the lesson.

Jeff Monague is a former chief of the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, former treaty research director with the Anishnabek (Union of Ontario Indians), and veteran of the Canadian Forces. Monague, who taught the Ojibwe language with the Simcoe County District School Board and Georgian College, is currently the superintendent of Springwater Provincial Park. His column appears regularly on BarrieToday.