AUNDECK OMNI KANING – Mnaamodzawin Health Services has run its innovative language and culture camp for the second year now, offering an opportunity for its staff to improve their skills in Anishinaabemowin and work on teambuilding at the same time.

“It’s all-around language immersion, so the games we were playing were not that important (in themselves), but the games were translated into the language and they had to use the language to take part in the game,” said Mnaamodzawin Health Services executive director Craig Abotossaway.

For two days, staff members convened at the powwow grounds in Aundeck Omni Kaning for the camp. Last year’s event was three days in length, but based on feedback and the mentally taxing nature of language learning, it was scaled back to two.

Mr. Abotossaway said this camp is a crucial part of building the skills that are required to make a major impact in the communities health providers serve.

“Why Mnaamodzawin came into fruition 20-plus years ago was to provide culturally based health services that meet the needs of First Nations communities on the Island,” said Mr. Abotossaway.

“Language plays a pivotal role in that, respect for the culture is key in that and respect can only be there with the acquisition of knowledge. When they learn more about it, ignorance is wiped away and they’re left with a knowledge base as to why it’s important or how it’s important to First Nations people,” he added.

Mnaamodzawin relies heavily on Anishinaabe teachings to cement its purpose and service delivery. It applies the Seven Grandfather Teachings as its guide to shape how it interacts with its five First Nation client communities.

“Language retention and cultural competencies are built-in policies at Mnaamodzawin (which state) that staff need to be progressing in those areas because they’re health service providers that work only with First Nations communities,” said Mr. Abotossaway.

To foster that continual growth, the health centre offers Anishinaabemowin classes every two weeks during the lunch hour and might host a one-day refresher event mid-way through the year.

The centre’s policy to continually develop language and cultural knowledge is entrenched in its professional development plan. It places the responsibility for these outcomes on the employees themselves. They are implored to seek out reading material and online courses on their own time to continually be building up their strengths in these areas.

Mental health counsellor Jacquie Allen lets a bocce ball fly while she practices her Anishinaabemowin skills, introducing the next shooter by name and announcing the end of her turn.

At the camp, the staff broke up into three groups that circulated to the various stations. Two stations would be hosting games and a third would involve a cultural teaching session. One of the game stations featured Anishinaabemowin darts—whatever number the players hit, they would have to say its name in the language. As they threw their second, they would have to add the numbers and continue reading them in Anishinaabemowin.

“Each activity was immersed in the language, forcing them to think and utilize the language as they were taking part,” said Mr. Abotossaway.

Each station also had a resident elder who was responsible for engaging with the participants and encouraging or challenging them to speak the language.

Mr. Abotossaway said he felt the event was a positive experience for those involved, and he was also taking part in several of the events alongside his staff members. This is the second year that the event has run and he said not much had changed besides the duration.

“We had a great start last year; we built upon it with a few tweaks and it was even better when we did it again this year,” said Mr. Abotossaway.

The organization, which has been in operation for 20 years as of 2019, has been well-received overall and has become an important part of the healthcare system on Manitoulin Island.