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Century-old schoolhouse repurposed as language school for Squamish Nation’s youngest

Click to play video: 'Squamish language school opens in historic building'
Squamish language school opens in historic building
WATCH: Vancouver's Henry Hudson building, known as the yellow schoolhouse, has been reborn as the Ta Tsíptspi7lhḵn, the new Squamish Nation Language Nest. The 112-year-old school was slated for demolition but saved and moved to the North Shore. At the grand opening on Friday, head teacher Kaiya Williams (Halat) described what it means to her and the community to have the school – Mar 8, 2024

The Squamish Nation is celebrating a milestone in efforts to revitalize their language.

Just 14 years ago the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh language, and its key role in transmitting traditional culture, was on the edge of extinction with fewer than 10 fluent speakers thought to remain.

That number has since rebounded to more than 100, and now a 112-year-old Vancouver schoolhouse is set to play a role in pushing the number higher.

On Friday, the nation marked the official opening of ta tsíptspi7lhḵn, the Squamish Nation Language Nest, a facility it hopes will see the language passed on for generations to come.

Click to play video: 'Historic Vancouver schoolhouse finds new lease on life in Squamish'
Historic Vancouver schoolhouse finds new lease on life in Squamish

“We want to keep it alive for all of our ancestors before us who were not able to speak and who attended residential school and day school,” explained Language Nest head teacher Kaiya Williams (Halat).

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“We get to call it our home, and with our home is an immersion setting.”

The program started in 2019, but did not have its own dedicated space.

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That changed in August, with an agreement between the Squamish Nation and the Vancouver School Board.

The century-old building, known in Kitsilano as the ‘Little Yellow Schoolhouse’ had been slated for demolition, but was instead loaded on a barge and transported to the Nation’s North Vancouver reserve lands.

After six months of renovations, it has been reborn as ta tsíptspi7lhḵn.

The building will now serve as the home of a language immersion program for the community’s youngest babies and toddlers, who will be exposed to fluent speakers.

“We have it set up where it’s in a home-like environment,” Williams explained. “Language is acquired in a natural setting, just like you would have at home.”

Click to play video: 'Kitsilano residents vow to save old schoolhouse'
Kitsilano residents vow to save old schoolhouse

The program already has more than a dozen tiny language learners, including Squamish Nation Hereditary Chief Ian Campbell’s young son, now in his second year.

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Campbell said he grew up with elders in his life who spoke the language and didn’t realize until he was older that most of his peers weren’t so fortunate.

“So I felt a deep responsibility to keep passing that on,” he said.

“The language is really going to give them the values and the principles of our Squamish people and our relationship and our responsibility to each other, to our territories, and celebrate the richness of culture in this part of the world, so this house really becomes that centre of excellence when it comes to language revitalization.”

There is a sense of reclamation to the project beyond the simple physical reuse of the building.

The schoolhouse’s old location at Cornwall and Maple streets in Kitsilano was not far from the Sen̓áḵw, the Squamish Nation’s village site in what is now Vancouver.

Click to play video: 'Project aims to revitalize endangered Indigenous language'
Project aims to revitalize endangered Indigenous language

“Our Squamish people were being deemed as squatters in our own lands in downtown Vancouver and evicted and forcibly removed from this particular location where the house previously sat by 1913,” Campbell said, adding that education at that time was openly oppressive to Indigenous peoples.

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“So over 100 years later we are seeing this full circle of the house being repurposed.”

The school, he said, shows the resilience of the Squamish language, despite systemic attempts to eradicate it through colonialism and the Indian act.

Now, he said, it will play a crucial role in helping the next generations claim their identity and culture.

“This is an opportunity to mature as a society and look at our shared journey, our shared values,” he said. “And ultimately the empowerment of our children to not assimilate but simply adapt to our ever-changing environment.”

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