Illustration: Anita Ho

I Almost Lost My Language

Residential school experiences serve as a backdrop for several motivated Oji-Cree Bible translators.

(Illustration above) Elements of the residential school experiences of Rev. Lydia Mamakwa and Ruth Kitchekesik are represented in a composite illustration by Anita Ho. The 22-year-old artist did the drawing after pondering their stories and reviewing archival photos of Poplar Hill residential school. Anita is a recent graduate of Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
(This photo)
As a 10-year-old student at Poplar Hill, Ruth Kitchekesik almost lost her Oji-Cree language. This photo was from her school yearbook.
(Photo: Natasha Ramirez)

Often, it began with a morning knock on the door of a First Nations family home. Outside stood the local Indian agent, the local clergyman, or maybe even an RCMP officer. The children inside were to leave for residential school, the event their parents had long been dreading. It was unnerving, even if the children had been given advanced warning. But now, it was time to go. 

For 150,000-plus Aboriginal children in Canada over more than a century, this was often how their residential school experience started. They were taken from their parents and transported to a strange learning and living environment, where their language and culture would be demeaned and oppressed. Some would suffer abuse, illness and even death in these 130-plus, government-financed boarding schools, usually run by Canada’s largest mainline churches. 

Ruth Kitchekesik and Lydia Mamakwa, Oji-Cree from the community of Kingfisher Lake in northern Ontario, were more fortunate. Their residential school stories are not as harrowing as many others across Canada. Nonetheless, their experiences are a backdrop for a personal passion to serve on a team of Oji-Cree mother-tongue Bible translators, part of the Wycliffe Canada-sponsored Cree Initiative project.

“I almost lost my language when I was 10 years old when I came back from residential school,” says Ruth. “That’s part of the reason I want to work in translation. That one time I almost lost my language, and my language is the most important thing to me.” 

Destination: Poplar Hill

As young girls, Lydia and Ruth attended Poplar Hill Development School. It was located in Ontario, near the corner where the province’s border with Manitoba bends sharply to the northeast. Poplar Hill residential school was operated from 1962-1989 by the Mennonite-affiliated Northern Light Gospel Mission. The organization, an outgrowth of the work that Mennonites from Pennsylvania had being doing in Minnesota, established three residential schools in northwestern Ontario.

Ruth Kitchekesik reads Scripture at her church in Kingfisher Lake, Ont.
(Photo: Natasha Ramírez)

It was 1971 when both Lydia and Ruth left Kingfisher Lake on the same plane to make the 300-km trip southwest to Poplar Hill. 

An Indian agent visited Lydia’s parents, pressing them to send their daughter to Poplar Hill rather than continue at the small, one-room school at Kingfisher Lake. Some of Lydia’s friends had gone to Poplar Hill several years earlier, but her parents initially resisted letting her attend. Two of their children had died from illness; they couldn’t handle the absence of another child at that point.

Lydia was 14 years old when she finally went to Poplar Hill.

“At first, I was very excited to leave, to go, because I thought it was a big adventure,” recalls Lydia, who is now the bishop for the Anglican Church’s first indigenous diocese (called the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh). But upon arrival at the school, she was less enthusiastic with the rules laid down by staff.

“We couldn’t wear our own clothes, except on Sundays. They provided the clothing. I had to wear a dress,” Lydia remembers.

“There was really no privacy. They would dig through our stuff.” 

Only English

Like all residential schools, Poplar Hill had one especially difficult rule: students were to speak only English. No matter which First Nations community the pupils were from, their languages were banned outright. 

"One day I got caught speaking my language and was made to write, ‘I will not speak my native language,’ on the blackboard a hundred times."
Lydia Mamakwa
Members of the Oji-Cree team review some of their drafted Bible translation. They are (counter clockwise from upper left): Zipporah Mamakwa, Ruth Kitchekesik, Jessie Atlookan, Theresa Sainnawap and Dominick Beardy.
(Photo: Natasha Ramírez)

This was a shock to Lydia, who even as a teen felt her mother tongue was beautiful. Under threat of punishment, Lydia secretly talked with her friends in Oji-Cree.

“One day I got caught speaking my language and was made to write, ‘I will not speak my native language,’ on the blackboard a hundred times,’ ” says Lydia. “I didn’t question it, being a 14-year-old. All I remember is that my arm was getting tired and I was by myself in the dining room.”

Though Lydia may have missed enlarging her Oji-Cree vocabulary because of her time at Poplar Hill, she didn’t lose her language. For that, she partly credits writing letters to her parents every few months. Because her father and mother didn’t understand much English, Lydia was permitted to write in syllabics, the writing system of the Cree. 

Poplar Hill teachers used a First Nations person on staff who could read syllabics to translate the letters, recalls Lydia. “Our correspondence was censored.”

During her time at Poplar Hill attending Grades 7 and 8, Lydia never felt abused. The staff were traditional Mennonites, including conservatively dressed female instructors who wore their hair in buns under small head coverings.

“For the most part they were very nice. Only when you broke a rule did you get the strap,” she recalls. “It seems like some [residential] schools were more harsh than others. [But] I probably have more fond memories than bad.”

The Good and Not So Good

Lydia says girls at Poplar Hill were taught regular school subjects, as well as cooking, sewing and home nursing. But it was the Christian content she most appreciates, looking back now. It reinforced what she was taught by her parents, who were Anglicans with a strong faith in God.

“The Bible teaching and the teaching of hymns was a good thing. They would have devotionals with us every evening. It played a big part in where I am today.”

Ruth Kitchekesik takes a turn blessing her community over the airwaves of a local radio station in Kingfisher Lake, Ont. She translates on the spot into Oji-Cree some readings from a prayer book in a related Cree language, and the Daily Bread devotional booklet and Bible in English. As the Oji-Cree team continues to move forward with its work, there will be more of their own mother-tongue materials for these types of spiritual outreaches.
(Photo: Natasha Ramírez)

Negating this, however, students at Poplar Hill were prohibited from acknowledging their own culture. As a result, Lydia says she developed a mindset that European culture was superior, which was one of the federal government’s hopes for residential schools right from the beginning. 

“But it was not too many years ago that my mindset started to change. I realized that God gave us our language, our own culture, our own way of life, and that is a gift. I began to understand what the elders were saying all this time. And from then on, I began to push that we use our mother tongue, to have it being first place in whatever we do.” 

The 60-year-old wife and mother of two grown children says Oji-Cree is now used in worship services at Kingfisher Lake, and God’s Word is steadily being translated for Bible readings in church.  “The youth and others can better understand what God is saying in the Scriptures. . . . People say that it makes it so much clearer to understand the message, and what God is saying becomes so real.”

Ruth’s Story

For Ruth, who went to Poplar Hill when she was 10 years old, some details about her residential school experience are foggy. “I don’t know why I don’t remember much,” says the 57-year-old. “Maybe I’m blocking some stuff.”

Ruth does know that a government man came to her family home at Kingfisher Lake. He pushed her parents to send an older brother to Poplar Hill, but her father resisted. He explained that he needed his son’s help at home. Ruth was sent instead.

"I’m glad that I’m able to speak my language now. I know that I’m not going to lose it again."
Ruth Kitchekesik

Upon arrival at Poplar Hill, Ruth remembers principals and teachers greeting her and other newcomers, and asking questions in English. She could answer “yes” or “no,” but could not carry on a conversation. Like Lydia, Ruth was made to put on a school dress. 

“There were a couple girls that were asked to look after me, to go change and wash up and all that,” recalls Ruth. “They made sure we were clean—I remember that.

“They told me what I had to do, secretly, in my language.” The girls immediately warned Ruth not to speak Oji-Cree around teachers and made it clear she had to quickly learn English. Ruth applied herself to do just that.

“I decided to go with the flow. There wasn’t much [else] I could do anyway.”

Ruth recalls hearing from others that conditions at Poplar Hill may have been worse before her time there attending Grades 5 and 6. By the time she arrived, the failing residential school program was on a downturn across Canada. Earlier, stricter conditions enforced by the government may have been changing. 

Like her older peer from Kingfisher Lake, Ruth fondly recalls the Bible teaching, hymn singing and practical instruction at Poplar Hill. 

“The good things were the Christian faith—and learning life skills. I think that was important. I don’t know if I would have learned how to make a dress otherwise.” 

She remembers how proud she was having memorized the names of books in the Bible. “I had 100 per cent on the test.”

But focusing on English took its toll on Ruth using her mother tongue. When Ruth was flown back to Kingfisher Lake for summer break, she struggled to speak Oji-Cree. 

“When I got off the plane, one of my older sisters came to meet me, and she hardly understands English. So, I tried to tell her, ‘There is one more box [of luggage] in there for me in the plane.’ I tried telling her and we couldn’t understand each other.”

Ruth was able to converse with two other siblings who knew a little English. “But I couldn’t talk to my mother.”

A Motivating Passion

Technology is pressing in on First Nations communities, such as Kingfisher Lake, Ont., increasing the influence of English among young people. The Oji-Cree Bible translation team believes that God’s Word in their community’s mother tongue will act as a way to boost the language’s use among young people, who also need the spiritual direction Scriptures can provide.
(Photo: Natasha Ramírez)

After returning and finishing another grade at Poplar Hill, Ruth’s time there ended. Her parents insisted she remain in Kingfisher Lake, where a new school had been built. “I was glad to be back home and that’s where I graduated from Grade 8.” 

As Ruth again immersed herself in Oji-Cree at home and during family trips into the bush, she fully regained her mother tongue. “I’m glad that I’m able to speak my language now. I know that I’m not going to lose it again.”

Ruth and her husband—who she met at a Bible camp—never had children of their own, but are raising their niece’s sons, ages 16 and seven. The couple have taken the boys to bush camp, where they go each September. At their cabin, nearly 50 km north of Kingfisher Lake, they hunt and fish—and focus on speaking Oji-Cree. 

Ruth wants to see the language grow stronger throughout her entire community, which is why she is so dedicated to helping translate God’s Word. Up until recently, their church has been limited to using Scriptures in other types of Cree.

“Our youth and children, they need to understand. If they go to church and they don’t understand the language, they get discouraged,” explains Ruth. 

“There are younger people who are always having problems. Some go through a lot. I just hope that it [God’s Word] will help them to have a better life.”

Lydia shares Ruth’s language passion. She is pleased that many children and grandchildren among the Oji-Cree still speak their mother tongue. And, unlike residential schools such as Poplar Hill, the school at Kingfisher Lake is making an effort to revitalize the community’s mother tongue among its students. 

“We hear of other languages going extinct,” Lydia says. “We don’t want that to happen to us.”


As translation of God’s Word into Oji-Cree marches on, a new generation of school students at Kingfisher Lake First Nation is learning to read their language’s syllabic writing system used in the Scripture translation. Several generations ago, this young girl may have been at a residential school, where her Oji-Cree language would have been prohibited entirely.
(Photo: Natasha Ramírez)

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