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Shirley Williams, Passionate Advocate of Anishinaabemowin-Ojibway Language and Culture

                        Shirley with a COPA storybook

When Shirley Williams was seven years old, a priest and Indian agent came to the door of her parents’ house to enroll her in residential school. Her father argued with him, saying he intended to homeschool Shirley and promised to teach her the catechism. Miraculously he was allowed to keep her at home, and so Shirley was homeschooled by her father for the next three years. Of course, he had never specified which language he would do this in, and he proceeded to teach her the Anishinaabe language and culture. For those three years he focused on teaching Shirley everything he could about their way of life and language, culture, trees, medicine and plants. By the time she was taken to residential school at ten years old, the seeds had been planted for her to become the passionate advocate of Anishinaabemowin-Ojibway language and culture that she is today.

Shirley Williams sits on COPA’s Advisory Council of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Elders and community leaders. She is a precious resource of knowledge, wisdom and language that COPA has been privileged to work with over the course of the past few years as we have developed and disseminated resources targeted to the well being of Indigenous students, families and communities:  A Circle of Caring and Joining the Circle. She has also translated our storybooks into Anishinaabemowin-Ojibway.

The first meeting of COPA’s Advisory Council for The Circle Widens Project: Mohini Athia (COPA), Nicole Parsons, Deb St. Amant, and Shirley Williams. Missing: Jeanne Herbert

Recently we sat down with Shirley to have a conversation about her extraordinarily passionate and committed life.

Shirley grew up in the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island. When her father realized that her siblings were coming home from residential schools speaking exclusively in English, he told Shirley’s mother that he wanted to keep one of their daughters at home in order to pass down the language, culture, and knowledge of their people. And so, having convinced the priest to at least delay her attendance at residential school, he proceeded to teach Shirley the ways of her people. From the age of seven, Shirley knew she had to focus on learning everything she could. She remembers the elders saying to her, “Pay attention, my daughter, because how else will you know what to say when someone offers you tobacco? You don’t know why I am telling you this, but someday you WILL understand.” That period in her life is what motivated her to write the book she is currently finishing, a book written in both English and Ojibwe, which contains 21 chapters of stories of her childhood, including stories about hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Shirley says, “I came to understand that because of the way we are living now, people want to know about these things. They need the connection.”  Her nieces and nephews, and all the children in her family would always say, “Ask Auntie Shirley”, as they did not know how to answer. And so she is writing this book, the latest of many she has written, so that the children, their families, and communities will know more about their language and culture.

Shirley left residential school at sixteen, not because she did not like learning, but because the children who attended the school were not treated well. “But I always thought I would go back to school someday, and periodically I did, one course at a time while raising kids.”  

Later in her life, she enrolled in university to do Native Studies, something she had wanted to do for a very long time, in order to learn more about herself and her people. She then went on to Lakehead University to study how to write and teach languages, and she remained there for 18 summers, teaching summer school. “A lot of our young people were saying, I don’t need the language, I am already an Indian. These were the same things we heard from those who went to residential schools, and these ideas were the legacy that came from denying us our language. Those of us learning and teaching Indigenous languages at Lakehead knew that and wanted to turn it around and create something positive. So we told those young people that we wanted to teach our language and culture because they are our life identity. It is said that when Creation was taking place, each People was given a language to speak. When we leave this world, the Creator will ask you your name in the language, and you will have to respond. It is important to take care of the language and to preserve it – it is our identity”.

Shirley’s passion is to preserve the language for her People, and when she started teaching it was to “restore what had been taken from us, and to undo the effects of what had been done to us”.  The nuns at residential school had said that the children would never use or teach the language and that is what the children were saying too.  Shirley knew how important it was that she turn that around.

The teachers at Lakehead University went out to their home communities and did research with students to find out more about the comments people were making and to ask students why they thought they should learn the language. They asked the Elders too, about what they should teach the children, and they said: “have you asked the children WHAT it is they want to learn?” They had not, so they had to return to their home communities to ask.

Shirley says that during this process she remembers one little boy who put his hand up and said, “I would like to learn the language of hockey. I am on a team now and always losing. If I knew the language, maybe we could speak the language among ourselves and win!”  Shirley, a hockey auntie who had raised two boys who played, thought that was a good response!

So she embarked upon a project to make the world of hockey available in the Ojibway language. For six years she traveled all over the province to hockey games and listened to players who were fluent in the language to discover the story. That is how she came to make the Hockey CD.

It was a huge project because many of the words for hockey did not even exist! For example – the word arena – in order to find the word she had to begin by asking: what were the colors, the shapes and the contents of an arena? She did the same for equipment, clothing, numbers, the food, and the referee. There was no word for jock strap, and since she knew this language tool would be used and taught in school and that derogatory terms would not be acceptable, she was careful to find the right and appropriate word. Then she had to translate the values and rules of hockey, and so she interviewed Indigenous NHL players in order to understand their values.

Shirley says they presented the project to the kids on a CD. She had rented the arena and filmed a lot as the kids played hockey. They played for the recognition and they played in exchange for copies of the CDs. The Hockey CD is now used in schools, and even when teachers are not using it in the classroom for teachable content, they still play it for the kids as a treat when they finish their lessons.

Shirley has been teaching the Ojibway language now for many years. She says, “Our Elders tell us our education should be fun, and that we should have fun learning the language, so this is what I have tried to do. It is how I have taught the language at university – through games, song, orthography. We sing ABC songs in the Anishinaabe language. In fact, the older Anishinaabe ladies made a song on ABC that we still use today. Professors have sometimes asked us if we were really TEACHING the language, because of all the singing and fun. One summer in an immersive class, for example we used action and games. “I have a ….” and you would have to guess.” The students loved it.

Besides making learning the language fun, another priority for Shirley was to make the written language and the stories beautiful. Her many books reflect this. For children she has written Aandeg, The Crow and Gii-bi-gaachiiyaanh: When I Was a Child. She has written language texts used to teach Ojibway in schools and universities, and crossword puzzle and anagram books with word games to help make the learning fun.  This vital, passionate linguist and prolific writer has been tireless in her work to make the Ojibway language accessible, and to root the teaching of it in the Anishinaabe culture – so as to reconnect the people with their traditional knowledge and ways of being. This is the work her father gave to her to do, when she was a small child.

Although she is now ‘officially’ retired, Shirley says, “I don’t want to stop – I know it’s very important.” And so, she has not. She still teaches at Trent University, albeit now via the internet using voice recording and PowerPoint, and she is an Elder in the Ph.D. program and the Indigenous department there as well. She translates for political meetings and for the Chiefs of Ontario – always in terms of language AND culture, as they are inseparable to the Anishinaabe People. She also does workshops and she lectures, traveling far and wide in her work as an Elder, to pass on her knowledge and to reconnect and restore what has been lost.

In addition, Shirley has been working with COPA to help create resources for students, families, communities and educators, because she believes not only in the value of the work, but also in the manner in which the work is being done. She believes that what COPA is doing plays a crucial part in restoring language and culture to Indigenous peoples, but equally important to her is the grassroots collaboration approach used by COPA: consulting with elders and communities as to what are the needs and what is appropriate to their community.

Shirley says the need is so high and the gap so wide – and that much more work is needed to fill in those gaps. She says, “Teachers need to know MORE about the importance of language and culture.” She believes strongly that this work has only just begun and says that “if the government really means what they say about their commitment to the restoration of Indigenous culture in Canada, they need to fund the work to develop language tools, translate, and create resources in order to restore what has been taken.” Web-based tools are needed, more resources for educators, and more translations of books and resources into Indigenous languages.

At the end of our conversation, we asked Shirley to suggest a good book that everyone could read in order to be informed, inspired and moved to participate more deeply in Reconciliation. Besides her own books which can be found here, Shirley’s recommendation is the Nishnaabemwin Odawa & Eastern Ojibwe online dictionary. She says that educators can use it for teaching, and students for research, and also to learn how to write in proper Ojibway. For the rest of us, the magic of the words and meanings and how they reflect the Anishinaabe culture will inspire us to redouble our efforts to understand, preserve and restore that which has been taken away.


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