Time is of the essence when you’re trying to breathe life into languages on the brink of extinction.
“Language is fundamental to who we are, where we come from, how we relate to others and what will live on after we are gone,” said Finance Minister Carole James during the NDP government budget speech last month in the B.C. Legislature. “Teaching of language also strengthens the cultural and social health of a community. It encourages children to grow into a future that flows from their rich heritage, and it connects the next generation with those of the past.”
The province just pledged to invest $50 million into Indigenous languages, and that boost is being welcomed warmly in Chilliwack, and clear across Sto:lo territory.
“It will go a long way toward actually revitalizing and supporting our languages, not just maintaining them,” said Tyrone McNeil, past chair of First Peoples’ Cultural Council, and president of the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC).
There is only one fluent speaker of Halq’emeylem left in the Chilliwack area, Elizabeth Phillips of Cheam First Nation.
Several public schools, in addition to on-reserve schools which provide Halq’emeylem instruction in Sto:lo communities, will benefit directly from the new funding. Two on-reserve schools are located in the Chilliwack area, at Squiala and Skwah First Nations, as well two more nearby at Sts’ailes and Seabird Island.
“It’s a tremendous investment by the province, which is greatly needed and greatly appreciated,” McNeil said.
The new language funding is “significant,” he added, and a clear indicator of a government ready to “walk the talk.”
The TRC Calls to Action and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples both emphasize the need to “preserve and revitalize” Indigenous languages, and they were also cited in the budget speech.
McNeil pointed out that language is absolutely key.
“It is our culture; our history, and our future,” he said.
There are two things they have learned definitively from experience about language instruction, McNeil said. The first is that “very small classes” work best in a master-apprenticeship relationship, and two, “the burden of responsibility” for language revitalization cannot fall to children alone.
McNeil elaborated on the latter.
“It can’t just be a subject that the children learn in school,” McNeil said. “We have to engage the parents, too.”
Although there is only one fluent speaker, there are Halq’emeylem teachers across the territory who are proficient, as well as recordings of speakers, and other raw materials.
Now they need to build on that base, in a systematic way, McNeil said.
It will take bringing children, and students together with their parents, to learn at the same time along with teachers, families and more, he stressed.
The budget speech, delivered by James, was clear about why language funding was being directed in this way.
B.C. is home to more than 30 unique First Nations, each with their own language. Several languages are severely endangered and 22 are nearly extinct.
“There is a strong link between linguistic and cultural identity and social, mental and physical well-being. Revitalization of First Nations languages is a critical part of that link,” stated B.C. Finance Minister James, in her speech.
“That’s why we are committing $50 million this fiscal year to support the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages in B.C. This funding will flow immediately, because there is no time to lose.”
McNeil agreed on the urgency, since the best way to improve all indicators of a community, is to improve language proficiency.
“This last school year was the first time we received dedicated funding for language for on-reserve schools,” McNeil said. “With this added investment, we expect to make serious inroads and add to the proficiency.
“Time is of the essence.”