Anishinaabemda Paaneh (“Let’s Always Use Our Language”)

  • June 28, 2021
  • Patricia Hania, Ph.D., and R. Martin Bayer

Patricia Hania, Ph.D., a member of the OBA Aboriginal Law Section Executive, and assistant professor in Law & Business Department, Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, Toronto interviews R. Martin Bayer, who is a member of the Aundeck Omni-Kaning First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. He has been a member of the Law Society of Ontario since 1996 and is a partner with Weaver, Simmons, Barristers & Solicitors in Sudbury, Ontario. More about Martin's biography and achievements below. 


On June 21, 2019, the Indigenous Languages Act received Royal Assent in recognition that existing living Indigenous languages in Canada are considered ‘endangered’. The federal government passed this legislation with the view to strengthen Indigenous languages, and as an act of reconciliation. 

With the recognition of Indigenous language within UNDRIP and other legal instruments, I recently spoke with Martin Bayer, an Indigenous lawyer, to better understand his perspective on the importance of Indigenous language in his legal practice. Our engaging conversation focused on five questions, and his responses are presented below:

1. As an Anishinaabemowin (also known as Ojibwe) language speaker, please introduce yourself, and your community.

Martin dizhnicaus, Manitou M’Nissing dowen ji baah. (My name is Martin and I am from Manitoulin Island.) 

2. Martin, please describe how your legal career and practice has developed over the years.

Currently, as a partner at Weaver-Simmons, my area of practice is primarily focused on Aboriginal Law, Mining and Natural Resources Law, Business Corporate and Commercial Law, and Tax Law.

This current area of practice is informed by my personal and professional life experiences where after graduating from U of T law school, completing my articles with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and then, after working for DOJ for three years in the Aboriginal Law section,  I realized that “my feet never touched the ground .... I was always walking on concrete.” It was time for a change. So, in 2002, I returned to my community on Manitoulin Island, the Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation. I was raised on the M’Chigeeng First Nation, formerly known as the West Bay Indian Reserve and returned there in the capacity of Tribal Chair of the United Chiefs and Councils of Manitoulin. In this role, and in support of the six communities I represented, we commenced litigation against the Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources with respect to the Ontario government’s initiative called “Operation Rainbow” that illegally targeted First Nation community hunters and fishers.

3. Please provide an example of how your language informs your practice, and assists you when working with your clients?

Speaking Anishinaabemowin establishes trust within the community. For instance, when I am presenting a mining company’s impact benefit agreement (IBA) to the community. As a language speaker, I can establish open two-way channels of communication where I speak directly with the elders, with community language speakers, and with non-language speakers.  

Being Indigenous, and a language speaker also informs my thinking when negotiating an agreement, like an IBA. I can easily speak with language speakers, and translate their interests when negotiating, on behalf of the mining company.  My language allows me to think and to present the First Nation interests when working with my client, often a global mining company or an exploration company. Being fluent in Anishinaabemowin, and through my representation of the mining company’s interests in a negotiation, the mining company representatives are introduced to teachings of the respective First Nation, and the socio-economic challenges facing a community. For example, I was working with a transnational mining company, and one day I received a call from my client - the CEO of the mining company, who had arrived in the northern Ontario for a pre-negotiation session with the First Nation but no one from the community was at the meeting. My response: “Are the geese flying north?” Yes. The hunters were out on the land. This incident spurred the CEO to rethink how the company would engage with the First Nation, and need to learn the knowledge and governance ways of the community. This led to the CEO’s recognition that the mining company needed to establish a corporate mining culture where the company can’t “mine without consent.”

4. What is the biggest challenge in integrating your language and culture into your practice, and then into the Canadian legal system?

Canada’s legal system overlooks Indigenous languages and cultural practices embedded in Indigenous ways of governing. What I mean by this statement is that when my community passes a law or makes a decision, for example, Should the community accept a particular term in an IBA? Our legal reference document is our governing law ¾ “The Big Law”.  By "The Big Law", I mean "Chi-Naaknigewin" in our language which means our constitution. All community laws and decisions are passed in accordance with this Big Law. The essence of reconciliation is grounded in learning about each other, and ways of knowing – for instance, in my community, the importance of prayer and our grandfather teachings.

Canadian law, like the Indian Act does not uphold ways to strengthen our languages or cultural practices. Self-governance fosters the use of our languages and the incorporation of cultural practices. For example, cultural practices conducted in Anishinaabemowin, at a council and a community meeting, reinforces our language because the meeting begins with an acknowledgement of ‘The Big Law’ in Anishinaabemowin, we offer thanks to our Creator in our language, and use our medicines for guidance and assistance in making our decisions in the meeting. None of these language or cultural practices are upheld in the Canadian legal system.

5. What advice would you give an aspiring Indigenous lawyer with respect to their language and their cultural practices?

As an aspiring Indigenous lawyer, spend time with your Elders -- learning your language, your communities’ cultural practices, and understanding the quiet way of learning. When entering another community, listen and inquire about the communities’ ways of governing, engage with the Elders, and their ceremonies, if asked to participate in ceremony - participate. Be mindful of these little things as these will make you a better lawyer, and a person………. Miigwetch.

About R. Martin Bayer

R. Martin Bayer is a member of the Aundeck Omni-Kaning First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. He has been a member of the Law Society of Ontario since 1996 and is a Partner with Weaver, Simmons, Barristers & Solicitors in Sudbury, Ontario.

Martin has been practicing aboriginal law for over twenty-five years now and provides advice to many First Nations, First Nation corporations, mining companies and other resource development companies, on a broad range of aboriginal legal issues.

Martin acts for a number of First Nations in relation to various matters, including land claim negotiations, negotiations with resource development companies across Ontario and self-government negotiations.

He gives a lot of his time and energy in a voluntary capacity to numerous organizations throughout Northern Ontario and was the founding Chairman of the Northern Policy Institute and is the past Chairman of the Waubetek Business Development Corporation. He serves on the Board of Governors of Laurentian University and on Laurentian University’s Goodman School of Mines Advisory Board.   

In 2002, he received an Ontario Premier’s Award for his contributions to education in Ontario and in 1999 he received the Cambrian College Alumni Award, and in 2013, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Anishinabek Nation in recognition of his work on behalf of First Nation’s people.  

Martin holds a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from the University of Toronto, a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science from Laurentian University and Three-Year Business Administration Diploma from Cambrian College. He also holds Certificates in Mining Law, Negotiations and Aboriginal Law from Osgoode Hall Law School. He holds Certificates in Introductory and Advanced Dispute Resolution from the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor.

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