Her tongue makes a clicking noise against the roof of her mouth as Mandy Jones demonstrates a sound in the Hul’qumi’num language that comes from stepping on a twig during a walk in the forest.
“Our language is connected to the land through our sounds,” said Jones, the Hul’qumi’num language coordinator for Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools and a Snuneymuxw elder. “Some of our Hul’qumi’num words can’t be translated into English.”
Hul’qumi’num is just one of 34 indigenous languages in B.C. and according to 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.
But there is an effort to turn the tide, including in Nanaimo where students of all ethnicity are learning the Coast Salish language and where dozens of advocates, language speakers and school district representatives from across the Island will gather for the first time this month to share their work and ideas on language revitalization.
Anne Tenning, vice-principal of aboriginal education for Nanaimo school district, said the education system in the residential school era was designed to eradicate indigenous language and culture, but Canada is out of a colonial phase and in one of reconciliation.
“That means bringing back, or putting all of our best efforts forward to work together to bring back what was lost, including culture and language,” said Tenning, who feels indigenous and non-indigenous people and education institutions all carry responsibility to ensure that happens.
Two hundred people are anticipated to attend the language symposium held at Vancouver Island University on May 30.
The event will recognize of work happening in districts and First Nations communities around indigenous language revitalization and help give more energy and momentum to bring that work forward, according to Tenning, who said if everyone is focusing their energies and getting more ideas from each other they can ensure the work being done is getting stronger all the time.
Nanaimo school district has been offering students Hul’qumi’num for a number of years, and recently received $10,000 from the B.C. government to help with its language revitalization work.
There’s not a current risk of Hul’qumi’num completely disappearing, but there are very few fluent speakers, said Tenning.
“So our efforts to bring it into the schools is really important in helping our local First Nations communities to help people develop the fluency skills that might not otherwise exist.”
When Jones first started teaching in the district more than a decade ago, two instructors were going school-to-school to introduce the traditional Coast Salish language and some schools hadn’t heard it before. Now Jones is hearing requests for Hul’qumi’num.
There are now 22 elementary schools and four secondaries where students will get Hul’qumi’num instruction, and five instructors.
Eventually the school district wants to develop programs to encourage more fluency, and elders have expressed the desire to see full immersion where nothing but Hul’qumi’num is spoken.
“You get that question so often, ‘why do you need to learn Hul’qumi’num?’ You can’t use it anywhere else … French is our second language here,” said Jones. “But Hul’qumi’num is more than just a language. It’s our culture, it’s our way of life and our way of life is educating, respecting our values and the importance of our land, our air, our water.”
In educating non-indigenous students about culture and language, people will start to understand “why we are the way we are” and it also builds self-esteem of First Nations students, who become teachers, she said.
Grade 11 student Ben Scott is one of the non-indigenous students taking Ladysmith Secondary’s language and land-based learning class, where students can learn the Coast Salish language and culture.
It’s a good thing Hul’qumi’num is in schools, he said.
“It shows that we are not afraid to be diverse. We are not afraid to have different opinions here and show different cultures and I do think it’s important to embrace the culture of the people who were first here because of a lot of the ways they look at life,” he said.
Breanna Seymour, from Stz’uminus First Nation, is also in the class and likes how people who are not First Nation are trying to learn.
She personally is aiming to go far with her language and wants to be able to speak it fluently when she has children one day, she said.
Onowa McIvor, associate professor of indigenous education at UVic, believes that essential for revitalization is creating new speakers and for every community there’s a different solution, depending on the stage their language is at.
She said bringing a language like Hul’qumi’num into the school system helps on a number of levels. With Hul’qumi’num-speaking students seeing part of their culture, language and community valued in the schooling system, other First Nations children might become curious of their own language or culture, and it’s part of a reconciliation effort for non-indigenous students.
“I truly believe it will be a better Canada if all those non-indigenous students in Nanaimo can know what it means to be Hul’qumi’num and say some words in Hul’qumi’num and recognize the language when they hear it and grow up to be ambassadors for better relations between those two people,” she said. “That’s the direction we all need to head.”