Margaret Cote, 70, dedicated her life to preserving the Saulteaux language for the next generation.
She accomplished this first by teaching it in the classroom, then by creating the resources and finally by training her successor.
On Wednesday, news of her passing was shared on social media, which shocked many — even those closest to her.
Solomon Ratt, associate professor of Cree Language Studies at the First Nations University of Canada (FNU), said a student shared the news with him during his online Cree class.
“Luckily it was in the last five minutes of the class and so I was able to hold it together,” he said on Thursday.
The pair not only share a long history of being language instructors, but they were also classmates.
In 1990, Cote, Ratt and Billy-Joe Laboucan were the first three to graduate with a linguistics degree from the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, which is the predecessor of the FNU.
Ratt is still amazed by Cote’s incredible work ethic because she managed to simultaneously teach, take classes and raise a family.
“When she started teaching the Saulteaux language, she had to write up the textbook she used,” he said.
Cote published her first book in 1984, Nahkawewin Saulteaux (Ojibway Dialect of the Plains), and three months ago Anihšinapemowin Beginning Saulteaux, a book she co-authored, was finally released. In total, she published about 20 Saulteaux language and culture books while being a full time Saulteaux language and Saulteaux history professor.
According to her bio on the Strong Nations Publishing website, Cote was the first person in Saskatchewan to teach a First Nations language in a public school.
“So, with her passing, we’ve lost one valuable speaker of the language,” said Ratt.
He said fluent speakers are necessary because the nuances of the language sometimes gets lost in translation to English.
Cote’s work to preserve the language began with her parents, and she made certain the work continued when she trained her niece to take her place.
“I was in business admin, when she asked me to study Saulteaux,” said Lynn Cote. “I started going to her classes and learning from her. At that time, all her notes were on pages she typed herself.”
Lynn transcribed everything and saved digital copies so the material could be replicated and shared when necessary.
Lynn changed her area of study to linguistics and became a Saulteaux language instructor, so when Margaret retired from the classroom work, Lynn took her place.
Like Ratt, she was shocked to hear of Margaret’s passing.
“She was my everything,” said Lynn on Thursday.
Margaret was not only committed to preserving the Saulteaux language, but she was also dedicated to her family, said Lynn. Her aunt was very loving and had an open-door policy when it came to friends and family.
“She would just tell someone, you can come live with me,” said Lynn.
Although Margaret retired from teaching, she continued to work on language projects with communities and organizations. As the matriarch and family historian, she remained connected to everyone even if it was only via social media.
On Valentine’s Day, she shared a video on Facebook of her boyfriend’s proposal and the plan was to marry once the pandemic was over.
“She didn’t care what people thought about her,” said Lynn. “But she followed her traditional teachings and never intentionally hurt anyone, but if she did she was quick to apologize.”
In addition to having a big heart and a big personality, Margaret was very intelligent, and Lynn said she will miss being able to ask her questions and to get advice.
As the only Saulteaux language instructor at the university, she knows how critical it is to continue the work Margaret started.
A celebration of life will be held on Monday at the Andrychuk Funeral Home in Kamsack from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. in adherence with COVID-19 Regulations. The burial will take place on Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Cote cemetery located on the Cote First Nation.