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  • Lost in translation

    Katherine Palmer Gordon

    December 2010

    British Columbia’s 32 indigenous languages were almost completely obliterated during the infamous reign of the residential schools. In 2010, they remain close to extinction. In a province where English predominates, does restoring them to active use make any sense? Overwhelming evidence suggests that the answer is yes—not only for the First Nations people from whom they were stolen, but for everyone.


    “ALL OUR SOCIAL PROBLEMS STEM FROM the disconnection of our young people to our culture because they don’t know our language,” says Renée Sampson, tears sparkling in her eyes. “Without that sense of cultural identity, they just don’t know who they are.”

    “Language is our birthright,” adds the 27-year-old SENCOTEN language apprentice and teacher from Tsartlip, north of Brentwood Bay. “But it was deliberately taken away from us by the residential schools. People should know that. That’s why our young people don’t know the language and it’s in such danger. We have a right to get it back,” she says, her voice shaking with emotion. “We deserve to be who we are.”

    On April 30 the Report on the Status of BC First Nations Languages 2010 was published by First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council (FPHLCC). Subsequent newspaper reports rang alarm bells over the fact that BC’s aboriginal languages are almost extinct. Language workers pleaded for much-needed financial support to save them, but expressions of support were few and far between. Instead, the local newspaper article attracted overwhelmingly negative public commentary—some of it so openly racist that the online version has since been removed from the newspaper’s archive. 

    The gist of the comments was that the death of aboriginal languages doesn’t matter, that tax dollars should not be “wasted” on them, and that “really, they should just get over it.” Five months later, the chill of those sentiments is still palpable in the SENCOTEN language room at the WSANEC (Saanich) Adult Education Centre at Tsartlip, where I am sitting with Sampson and a group of other language apprentices and teachers. 

    Sunlight is streaming through the windows over the colourful posters on the walls, and cheerful preschoolers chattering in SENCOTEN can be heard from next door. But a sombre mood has fallen over the room as the group discusses why First Nations people aren’t about to “get over” wanting to prevent their languages from dying—and why they not only need but deserve support in their efforts. 

    PENÁC (David Underwood) is a fourth year arts student at the University of Victoria. “You could say that our language takes care of our people,” he says. “Our words tell us how to behave through the values associated with them. That’s why it isn’t easy to translate into English—those values get lost. That’s why we need to know it.” SELILIYE (Belinda Claxton), 58, PENÁC’s aunt, nods in agreement. “SENCOTEN is not just a language, it’s a philosophy,” she explains. “So speaking the language is a way of being. It gives back to the young people self-confidence in how they behave and a strong sense of who they are.” 

    Kendra Underwood, 26, works for the WSANEC School Board as an administrator. “I don’t think the people [on the newspaper’s website] who made those comments are typical, fortunately,” she says. “But I also think that most people just don’t get how important our language is in our lives. We deserve to have our language be healthy and whole. We need help for that to happen, because we don’t have the money or resources to do it by ourselves and if we don’t do it now, it will be too late. And it comes down to this,” she adds. “We didn’t let it go. It was taken from us!” Underwood exclaims passionately. “Do people understand that?”

    Indeed, if these articulate, bright, hardworking men and women are anything to go by, it is more than time we understood that First Nations languages do matter—and why paying for language revitalization not only makes sense, but is money well spent.


    A state of emergency

    Here’s the problem: the five percent of First Nations people in the province who remain fluent in BC’s 32 indigenous languages are mostly over 65. That tiny pool is dwindling rapidly. 

    Groups like the WSANEC School Board are working hard to document their languages, and intense efforts are being made by First Nations-operated schools to incorporate language lessons into curricula. But in most cases all they can manage, with inadequate budgets and limited numbers of speakers, is an hour or two a week. 

    Dr Lorna Williams, chair of the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council (FPHLCC), based at Tsartlip, is of Lil’wat heritage. Williams also holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Learning at the University of Victoria. Williams admits, “A lot more work has to be done to protect BC’s languages before it’s too late.”

    But federal government funding remains woefully inadequate at only $5 million annually split equally between all the provinces and territories, regardless of the number of resident languages. BC has been more generous, contributing between $3.5 and $4.5 million annually to the provincial effort through various agencies, including FPHLCC. But that sum covers all aspects of arts, heritage and culture, not just language, and it is nowhere near enough. FPHLCC estimates that documenting all of BC’s indigenous languages will cost at least $20 million. 

    In the absence of that kind of money, it is difficult to make significant progress. Lorna Williams remarks: “Anyone’s who ever been on a reserve knows that the government dollars provided go nowhere near covering everything that is needed—housing, elder care, education, and so on. People in the communities have very little money to work on their languages. It’s amazing what they achieve despite that.” 

    “How much did the government spend on residential schools to beat the language out of us?” ponders one of the language apprentices. “It would be nice if the government would return what they spent on trying to assimilate us to revive what was taken away.” That kind of gesture, says Tracey Herbert, executive director of FPHLCC, would demonstrate a genuine reconciliation effort by governments: “A strong investment in language and culture would make a huge difference in closing the gaps between non-First Nations and First Nations people.”

    Brand-new Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Barry Penner is acutely conscious of that point despite his short tenure, noting: “Preserving the languages might also help us all communicate with each other better.” But Penner is hamstrung by the usual suspect: grim-faced finance ministry officials demanding proof of the cost-benefit analysis of throwing money at a cultural issue like language. “All the same,” promises Penner, “I’m willing to have that conversation with them. These languages are part of every British Columbian’s history, after all.” 


    What’s the big deal, anyway?

    The story of the abuses that took place at residential schools is now well-known. Less well-known, explains Tracey Herbert, is the fact that the main goal of the schools was to exterminate aboriginal languages by interrupting their transmission from generation to generation—and in the process of doing so, stamp out cultural world views that were in conflict with those of the colonizers. It was an effective strategy, according to Andrea Bear Nicholas, chair of Native Studies at Fredericton’s St Thomas University: “It took only two or three generations before people stopped using their language.” 

    Loss of language was further exacerbated when child welfare services were put in the hands of provincial governments in the 1960s. Under what is now infamously known as the “Sixties Scoop,” aboriginal children were taken in droves (no one knows the exact numbers) from their families and placed into non-aboriginal foster homes far from home. More than half of them were sent to the United States and Europe, never to return. 

    When SELILIYE went to public school in the 1960s, she wasn’t allowed to speak SENCOTEN. “It was a nightmare for me,” she recalls. “We were taught Latin instead. I had no idea what any of it meant. I would get called a dumb Indian. I dreaded going.” Eventually, she simply stopped. “There was no point. I learned nothing at all.”  

    SELILIYE, along with all the other children deprived of their languages, was the victim of a universally accepted truth: remove the language from the child, and the emotional, cultural and academic costs are enormous. They include disproportionately high school dropout rates, unemployment, addictions, crime, and suicide rates—as well as the consequential burden on medical, welfare and correctional systems.


    A grim relationship

    In 2007, UVic psychology associate professor Christopher Lalonde co-authored a report starkly entitled: “Aboriginal Language Knowledge and Youth Suicide.” The report described known socio-economic factors contributing to youth suicide rates in aboriginal communities, such as poverty, and then overlaid an additional factor: absence of language. 

    Lalonde and his colleagues researched 150 communities in British Columbia, and discovered that language had more predictive power in anticipating suicide rates than any previously-known indicator. Even more striking: “Rates dropped to zero in communities in which at least half the members reported a conversational knowledge of their language.” By contrast, where there was little or no connection to language, the suicide rate was typically six times higher than the national average.

    “Loss of language is also the canary in the coalmine of cultural distress [generally],” concluded the report’s authors. “The association between cultural collapse and the rise of public health problems is so uniform and so exceptionless as to be beyond serious doubt.” 


    Giving language back to kids: the good news

    At Thanksgiving this year, Renée Sampson watched her 16-year-old niece lead her cousins in performing a SENCOTEN drum song. “I was watching her,” recalls Sampson, “and thinking, here are these teenagers—they are at the point where they could be out drinking, dropping out of school, getting pregnant—and they’re not! They’ve embraced the language instead, and they’re proud and they’re healthy.” 

    Sampson’s nieces, unsurprisingly, are excelling in school. It is now well established that children versed in their mother-tongue language as well as English benefit from positive brain development and do well in all areas of education. Tracey Herbert notes the success of Mohawk and Cree immersion schools founded in Ontario in the mid-1980s: “Their kids have higher high school graduation rates than national averages, and some of the highest rates of follow-through into post-secondary education of any First Nations in Canada.” 

    Bear Nicholas applauds Papua New Guinea, which has provided mother-tongue education in indigenous languages since 1993. “The results are striking. Children become literate more quickly and learn English faster than children who went through the old unilingual system, and score higher in all subjects. The drop-out rate has also decreased.”

    The same results are also emerging closer to home. The N’kmaplqs i Snma’mayat’tn klSqilxwet (Okanagan Indian Band Cultural Immersion School) is the region’s first school with Okanagan language and knowledge at its foundation. Dr Bill Cohen, a band councillor and former associate professor of Indigenous Studies at Okanagan University College, helped establish the K-7 school, now in its fifth year. 

    “The community has two fundamental goals it wants to achieve with the school,” says Cohen. “They want the kids to be fluent in their language—to speak, think and dream in it. Equally importantly, they want the children to be successful in the provincial school curriculum and in gaining world knowledge. We’re well on the way to meeting both those goals,” he says with satisfaction.

    Cohen says that most of the children going through the program shine when they enter high school, getting onto honour rolls, principal’s lists, and school sports teams. “There’s a real difference in these kids,” he observes. “They’re more confident in public. They know who they are. They are healthy, happy young people who are succeeding in the public school system with ease.” Kathy Michel, cofounder of the Chief Atahm immersion school in Chase, has had the same experience: “When my children entered the public school system at Grade 11, they opened up their science book and said, ‘Oh, this is easy stuff. We were taught this way back in Grade 5’.”

    Sl,OLTENOT (Madeline Bartleman), 26, is another WSANEC language apprentice. A confident, articulate mother of four studying for her B.Ed at UVic, Sl,OLTENOT is living proof of the benefits of having grown up learning her language at the LÁU,WELNEW Tribal School at Tsartlip. “When I go out in the world,” she says simply, “I know exactly who I am and where I come from, and I’m proud.” Her children are now learning SENCOTEN at the same school. “The teachers say they are very fast learners and doing really well,” she says proudly. 

    Mike Willie, 33, is the Cultural Preservation and Revitalization Coordinator at the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw K-7 School in Port Hardy. Originally from Kingcome Inlet, Willie experienced both sides of the language coin growing up. “Because Kingcome Inlet is so isolated, we were able to retain our language and customs, even when they were banned by the government,” says Willie. “I grew up hearing my language and singing the songs. It was wonderful.” 

    That all changed when it was time for high school, however: after Grade 7, Kingcome Inlet families have to send their children away to complete high school. “I was sent to Victoria,” says Willie. “I really struggled—it was a huge culture shock.” Like SELILIYE, Willie wasn’t taught about his own history: “I learnt all about the Romans and the Vikings, but not about what happened right here in Canada to my people.” 

    What saved Willie was the strong sense of identity that was ingrained in him from his earliest childhood. “I kept up my singing, even though I was far from home.” Indeed, the remarkable teenager was so hungry to stay grounded in his culture, he skipped school regularly to spend time in the BC government archives, transcribing tapes of his language. “The archivist thought I was researching for my degree in University, so he didn’t question me being there!” chuckles Willie.

    More soberly, he reflects: “Having been taught in my language as a young child totally helped me with my self-confidence and getting through school and university. That’s true of many kids from Kingcome—there is a really high success rate in post-secondary education and I attribute it directly to being grounded in the language.” 

    Take that away, and the results speak for themselves. “After all,” concludes Willie, “if you don’t know who you are, you’re just roaming this world, lost. You’re not grounded anywhere.”


    The case for support

    The moral case isn’t difficult to make. We took the language away; shouldn’t we give it back? Dr Peter Heap is a retired government official now on the Board of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, which raises funds to support FPHLCC and other language revitalization organizations. “Not supporting revitalization of languages, in one sense, is actually continuing to hammer nails in their coffin—to keep contributing to the oppression that First Nations have suffered for so long,” says Heap. “The impact of all that pain and suffering remains abundantly clear and we owe it to them to help stop that.”

    Environmental scientists have also made a strong case for language preservation, arguing that with the extinction of any indigenous language a wealth of knowledge about animals, plants, mathematics, navigation and medicine is also lost. One First Nations language, for example, has two different names for a salmon which non-aboriginal fisheries scientists insisted for decades was just one species—until DNA testing finally proved them wrong.

    Even if you don’t subscribe to such arguments, consider this business case, put forward by Drs Heap and Bear Nicholas. Heap, who lives in Victoria, read the online complaints about “misspent” tax dollars last May. He dismisses them summarily: “It’s a brutal assessment, but if you really want to look at it that way, then consider it a case of ‘pay me now or pay me later.’ The evidence is blindingly strong that a healthy language contributes to a healthy community. An unhealthy one puts a disproportionate burden on the social welfare system. Ultimately, the taxpayer is going to pick up a much bigger tab for that.”

    Bear Nicholas is equally blunt: “Providing mother-tongue education for First Nations children would avoid the expense involved in addressing high dropout rates, including social and financial costs associated with welfare, addictions, suicide, incarceration and poor health.” She cites this compelling example: the cost of a private tutor in a mother-tongue language for nine years is significantly less than keeping someone in prison for just one year. The cultural and emotional saving is immeasurable.


    Efforts at the front lines

    There is good news, and it lies in the work being done by people like Bill Cohen and Kathy Michel, Saanich language guru STOLCEL (John Elliott), FPHLCC and UVic. The latter institution is supporting young teachers like Sampson and Williams by providing SENCOTEN teaching certification programs that are compatible with provincial school standards. The LÁU,WELNEW Tribal School, under STOLCEL’s direction, supports 185 K-9 students from the four Saanich First Nations communities with an extensive language curriculum. Pilot pre-school “language nest” immersion programs around the province have proved highly successful.

    FPHLCC also administers a highly sophisticated web-based language archiving program called FirstVoices, in wide use by First Nations across BC. The program was created ten years ago by STOLCEL, working with Peter Brand, then a teacher at the LÁU,WELNEW Tribal School (and now the coordinator of the FirstVoices program). STOLCEL’s father, Dave Elliott, had created a SENCOTEN alphabet a few years previously. Brand stumbled across inexpensive software that enabled the creation of a simple dictionary using Elliott’s alphabet, and FirstVoices was born. 

    As of October 2010, says Brand, a full audio-visual dictionary of SENCOTEN words and phrases is now downloadable from iTunes, free of charge, as is the Halq’emeylem language. The possibilities, he adds, are endless. 


    A promising future

    In the meantime, Renée Sampson will graduate this year with a B.Ed and her provincial teaching certification in SENCOTEN. Likewise, PENÁC will graduate with an arts degree and a passionate ambition to see his infant daughter speaking her language fluently with her peers. Sl,OLTENOT is avidly studying her SENCOTEN dictionary on her iPod in between working on her degree. 

    All of them hear stories from the parents of the children they are teaching that fill them with happiness: a small child asking her mother in SENCOTEN if she is feeling all right; teenagers leaving giggly phone messages for each other in their language to foil their non- SENCOTEN-speaking parents, who smile indulgently and proudly behind their children’s backs—then head quietly over to the WSANEC Adult Education Centre to enrol for adult language starter classes.

    SELILIYE is looking forward to graduating from Grade 12 at LÁU,WELNEW Tribal School, to which she returned this year at the age of 58. It is a quiet ambition, but a meaningful one: no longer does she feel like a “dumb Indian,” but a proud and healthy WSANEC woman speaking her language. She is also looking forward, with a heart full of tears and joy, to sitting at the kitchen table as she once did as a small child listening to her grandmother, but this time it is her grandchildren who will be speaking SENCOTEN. 

    “My achievements in life are totally attributable to knowing my language and my origins,” says Mike Willie, the cultural revitalization coordinator in Port Hardy. “Without that, I would be completely lost. Where do people go when they’re lost?”


    Katherine Gordon is an author and freelance writer based on Gabriola Island and is on the board of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation. Her sixth book, We Are Born With Our Songs Inside Us, explores the links between identity and wellbeing through the stories of 21 young and inspiring aboriginal British Columbians.

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