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University program breathing new life into Squamish Nation language

New SFU course aimed at bringing language back from the brink of extinction



The death knell of the Squamish First Nation language is sounding a little less loudly after word that a new language immersion course is on the way.

Khelsilem, who will be one of two instructors leading a full-time immersion program of the Skwomesh language at Simon Fraser University this fall, sees this as more than just preservation of the Skwomesh language.

"I see it as community development," he said. "I see it as nation-building. I see it as, in order for my people to have our own laws, governance, society, traditions and culture, the language is really needed in order for it to really be our own."

Just seven people in the world are fluent in Skwomesh. This is indicative of the state of First Nations languages throughout the province.

In 2010, a report called B.C. First Nations Languages was released, outlining the stark realities of the situation.

In just over 100 years, since the time of colonization and the efforts of the Canadian government to assimilate the First Nations people, the 34 unique languages in the province (with 59 dialects) have gone from 100-per-cent fluent First Nations speakers to 5.1 per cent. Semi-speakers make up only 8.2 per cent.

The 2010 report states: "Based on three variables for measuring language endangerment (speakers, usage and language resources), all B.C. First Nations languages are severely endangered or nearly extinct. Some are already sleeping."

Four years later in a follow-up report, not much has changed.

It states: "The 2014 statistics show that, while progress is being made in terms of increased semi-speakers, much more work needs to be done while fluent speakers are still with us."

This course is aimed at doing just that.

Khelsilem, who calls himself semi-fluent, began taking an active interest in learning his language several years ago when he was 19 years old.

"I was really connected with my culture and heritage; I always found it a source of strength," he said.

The SFU program is modelled after similar programs elsewhere in Canada and New Zealand.

By immersing in the language five days a week for seven hours a day, for a total of 1,000 hours, students can become more proficient. It's far different than classes for a few hours every week.

"I've seen the impacts that it would have on my self-esteem and strength, and the creativity of my community when we have the language in our hearts and our minds," said Khelsilem.

"It's who we've been for thousands of years, it'll be who we continue to be for the next thousand years. So I see it as a part of that. I see it as a part of how we can exist as our own distinct people in the world and it's important that we have our language to do that."

Students with Squamish Nation ancestry and who are under 50 years old will be given priority. The course will be offered to 15 people in its first year.


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