Mourning Dove Hall, a member of Osoyoos Indian Band, started her Nsyilxcn language journey when she heard it being spoken on the phone, in public.
“It just kind of just stopped me in my tracks,” said Hall. “I’m the first generation that never went to residential school, so in my family there are fluent speakers, but they never spoke, and when they did it was in secret.”
She said hearing her language spoken in public blew her mind and she knew she needed to learn.
“I wanted to be able to call somebody, and now I’m able to, I can call my classmates in our language.”
Hall is one of the first graduates of the bachelor of Nsyilxcn language fluency that walked across the stage Thursday; it’s Canada’s first bachelor’s degree of Indigenous language fluency.
“I’m still processing and having it sink in … I’m so proud of myself and my cohort, we’ve all worked very hard these last couple of years,” said student Savannah Louis, member of the Okanagan Indian Band. “I’m just so happy to have reached this amazing goal, this amazing journey, and it’s not done yet for me.”
Establishment of the program began in 2011, spearheaded by the Indigenous Adult and Higher Learning Association which said language needed support at the post-secondary level. The bachelor’s degree comes out of UBC Okanagan and was created in collaboration with the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and the En’owkin Centre to support language learning and promote new, fluent speakers.
Jeannette Armstrong, associate professor of Indigenous Studies at UBC Okanagan and academic lead of the program said since its inception, work has been done to duplicate the model.
“It needed to be framed so that it could serve all language communities in British Columbia,” she said. “There is a working group that’s implementing it beyond the pilot, there are two new language degrees – Secwepemctsin language and St’át’imcets language degrees – that have been approved through the Ministry of Advanced Education.”
Armstrong said they’re expecting more programs to be approved every year until all language groups have developed their own courses.
“The model is working and the proof of it is here,” she said. “And we know that there’s a lot of people in this country that are really interested in how this program can serve their language groups.”
Louis started her language journey more than 10 years ago; she’s a lifelong learner and said learning was really important to her, her family and her community.
“This new degree opens a lot of doors for me and for others who are wishing to learn our language,” she said. “Being able to obtain this degree, it’s truly amazing and groundbreaking. It’s a long time coming, it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s well worth it.”
In Canada, there are at least 70 Indigenous languages spoken and Statistics Canada recently reported that more than 200,000 Indigenous people can speak their language well enough to conduct a conversation — this number, however, is down by 4.3 per cent, from 2016.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action directly address the importance of Indigenous languages. Call to Action 13 calls upon the federal government to “acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights.”
Since 2019, the federal government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in ongoing funding to support the implementation of the Indigenous Languages Act.
Language revitalization is a priority.
Rose Caldwell, another graduating student and member of Westbank First Nation, started taking classes because she felt she was missing out.
“Myself and two younger brothers weren’t taught the language because of residential school,” said Caldwell. “It was really tough on me, I carried a real grudge about that for a long time and finally came to the realization before taking classes.”
Because the program is so new, Caldwell said they developed everything on the fly.
“It’s really been spirit awakening,” she said, “I got grounded, I got brought home.” she said. “This is my calling. I have a very high passion for language.“
Caldwell said the plan is for each community in the Syilx Nation — those who speak Nsyilxcn — to have their own cohort during the first two years, then join up at UBC Okanagan for year three and four.
“That third-year cohort could be 50, 60, 70, up to 100 strong,” she said. “We have close to 100 recruits right now at all different levels of language learning.”
Now a graduate, Caldwell is building up the next level of language learners. “I have grandchildren and when we get together, I speak mostly in the language to them.”
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