Hul’qumi’num-speaking people need to come together and talk about ideas to save the language and bring back fluency, according to Snuneymuxw elder Gary Manson, a panelist at the first-ever t’uxusthumpsh Vancouver Island Indigenous Language Symposium.
“Fluency is probably non-existent in my village now. There are maybe a handful of elders that can do it if they had somebody to speak to,” said Manson, who called himself a “very good basic teacher” but said he can’t speak fluently. “If you asked me to have a conversation with my sister beside me I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
About 100 language teachers, leaders, elders, youth and school staff from across Vancouver Island came together this week during the symposium at the Port Theatre to share their work, experiences and ideas about revitalization of indigenous languages.
The event was co-hosted by Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools, Cowichan Valley School District, Vancouver Island University and B.C. Ministry of Education.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive that this is something people have been waiting for for a long time, just an opportunity to gather and share our experiences and what we’re doing and to learn from each other,” said Anne Tenning, Nanaimo school district principal of aboriginal education.
There are 34 indigenous languages in B.C. and according to the First People’s Cultural Council, it’s safe to say all are critically endangered. It found, in 2014, there were fewer than 6,000 fluent speakers of indigenous languages.
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The province announced a $50-million investment this year to help save indigenous languages, and at the symposium, Anne Hill, Ministry of Education indigenous languages coordinator, said the premier has given the minister a mandate to support language revitalization with an expectation that course offerings will be developed in aboriginal languages for the K-12 system.
It’s a “very big mandate” and one that signals the importance of indigenous language learning and work, Hill said, adding like many people at the symposium, the ministry is asking what it can do and how it can support.
“We want to walk alongside you in this journey to revitalize indigenous languages and we’re especially looking to initiatives on trying to work with you and with others on things like the development of a policy to support indigenous language learning separate from French education, on curriculum for kindergarten to Grade 12 learning for indigenous language and on the development of resources,” she said.
School staff shared what they’re doing around language at the event.
School District 85, for example, has new Kwak’wala language and culture camps for kids and hopes to add more each year, Qualicum School District has run a Hul’qumi’num pilot program in schools for the last three years and Tsawout First Nation’s tribal school has a language nest, or immersion program for SENCOTEN.
Rosie McLeod-Shannon, principal of aboriginal education in the Qualicum School District, said the symposium gets other districts on board and seeing the importance of language and culture in schools.
David Underwood with the Tsawout First Nation called the symposium a bridge in communication about revitalization efforts on the Island.
“This gives us a chance to connect with one another,” he said. “It’s good that it’s finally happening.”
In Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools, Hul’qumi’num is taught in more than two dozen schools.
A take-home message from the event for Tenning is that “we need to be bold in doing this work, we need to know that we’re doing the right thing and not be limited by some of the structures and processes within our institutions or our districts,” she said.
“When I heard Florence James [a panelist] say our language now, it’s like gold, in fact it’s more than gold,” she said. “You can’t put a value on it anymore because there’s so few fluent speakers left that it really is now or never.”
She said there’s a sense of urgency to continue work in language revitalization but also a necessity to be humble and mindful about what’s being done and support and uphold culture and language teachers, fluent speakers and elders, but not overtax them because they are in such demand.
The language symposium is expected to happen again but Tenning says it’s a good idea and would speak to collective work and energies if it’s moved into other communities.
There are so many distinct language groups and there’s much to learn from each other, she said.