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A new generation embraces a First Nation language that was nearly extinguished

More than 50 years ago, community leaders formed the Saanich Indian School Board, now the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board

Tsartlip councillor Curtis Olsen says he’s amazed — and a little bit jealous — when he sees his nation’s youth learning and speaking the language of the W̱SÁNEĆ people.

Children attending ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School on Tsartlip reserve near Brentwood Bay begin their school day in the gym with prayer and singing of songs in SENĆOŦEN.

The kindergarteners came up with a song about rainbows in SENĆOŦEN and shared it with the whole school, said elementary principal SI,OLTENOT Madeline Bartleman.

Following the daily gym meeting, SENĆOŦEN-immersion-track students gather for speaking practice, introducing themselves and chatting about the weather in the Straits Salish language that was once heavily suppressed in Canada, Bartleman said.

She said the school focuses on literacy and fluency, which begins with teaching the shapes and sounds of the 38-letter SENĆOŦEN alphabet.

Students are fully taught in the language until Grade 4, when part-time English-language instruction is introduced.

Their teachers, many of them master’s students in Indigenous language revitalization at the University of Victoria, had to translate the B.C. curriculum into SENĆOŦEN to make the program work — all the main subjects such as math, social ­sciences, applied skills and technology. “It’s a lot of extra work, but it’s all worth it,” Bartleman said.

Elders helped develop SENĆOŦEN lexicon for terms in the curriculum that were previously not in the language.

Members of the program’s oldest cohort, who are moving to Grade 11 next year, began immersion in nursery school and can now write in SENĆOŦEN, said Bartleman, a SENĆOŦEN second-language speaker. “It’s amazing to see how much more deeply they understand the language than I would.”

It’s all very different from what Olsen experienced when he attended school on reserve in the 1960s.

At the Tsartlip Indian Day School, habit-wearing nuns “pushed the Catholic religion on us,” he said. “The first thing they asked us on Monday morning was: ‘Did you go to church yesterday?’ And if you didn’t, you were punished.”

Since 2019, the federal government has paid out a $1-billion settlement to Indian day school survivors for harms suffered, including payments of up to $200,000 for survivors who experienced physical or sexual abuse.

After the three-room schoolhouse where Olsen went to day school burned down around 1972, the federal government considered incorporating ­Saanich Peninsula First Nation children into the public school system, Olsen said. But a group of W̲̱SÁNEĆ women saw the need to retain a school within the community and fought that decision. Somehow, the women found a direct phone number for a minister in Ottawa and convinced him in a late-night phone call to keep the school.

The government brought in portable classrooms and slowly the W̱SÁNEĆ began to have more say in how education happened in their communities.

The late Tsartlip member Philip Paul , co-founder of influential Indigenous organizations known today as the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the Assembly of First Nations, was instrumental in forming the Saanich Indian School Board that eventually took over school operations, Olsen said.

Bartleman said the elementary school, built in 1989, was given the name ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ by the late W̱SÁNEĆ elder Ray Sam.

According to oral histories, ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ was the name given to the place of refuge and safety that W̱SÁNEĆ people went to during the great flood.

Sam had insisted that the school be named after ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ because he believed education would play a similar role for their people, she said. “Our school is what’s going to save our people,” she said, quoting Sam.

Over the years, the Saanich Indian School Board became the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board and added a high school and an adult education centre, now called W̱SÁNEĆ College.

Today, more than 300 students from the Tsartlip, Tsawout, Pauquachin and Tseycum First Nations attend W̲̱SÁNEĆ learning institutions, from preschool to elementary, secondary, adult and post-secondary.

Board president Abraham Pelkey said a majority of W̱SÁNEĆ students and their families choose W̱SÁNEĆ schools over the public system.

His grandparents were involved in the initial advocacy efforts about 50 years ago, travelling to Ottawa and fighting for First Nation jurisdiction over education, he said. “It really gives me strength to know that I’m carrying on such a legacy.”

Local post-secondary partnerships have been helpful with SENĆOŦEN language-revitalization efforts, which are critical to preserving their way of life, Pelkey said.

The SENĆOŦEN language has long been in decline after active suppression efforts by governments, but the past decade or two has seen concerted efforts to reverse that trend.

In the 2021 census, 314 people reported they had some knowledge of Straits Salish languages, including 30 who said it was the language most spoken at home.

There are an estimated 16 fluent speakers and 165 semi-fluent of SENĆOŦEN and its four related dialects of Malchosen, Lekwungen, Semiahmoo and T’Sou-ke, according to the latest 2022 report on B.C. First Nations languages by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council.

Sc’ianew First Nation elder Lavina Charles is the last known SENĆOŦEN speaker alive today who learned the language as her mother tongue, the report said.

SENĆOŦEN language teacher MENEŦIYE ­Elisha Elliott said many in her family are dedicated to language revival.

Both her parents quit their jobs — her mother in hospital work, and her father in road construction — to become SENĆOŦEN teachers, she said. Her sister is also a language teacher.

Efforts began when she was a child. “We realized the language was in decline and we tried to bring it out,” she said. “My grandmother and her siblings were speakers and storytellers, so we gathered around and listened to their stories and learned some language from them.”

The school board took inspiration from Hawaiian people’s language immersion programs when it set up the SENĆOŦEN immersion program.

“They started just like we did — the language nest, and grew to kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2, and then kept growing right to the PhD.”

UVic vice-president Indigenous Robina Thomas said the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board’s language-revitalization effort is groundbreaking for British Columbia. “They’ve been leaders in Indian control of Indian education, to use the terms that we used in 1972,” said Thomas, a member of the Lyackson First Nation.

Thomas recalls learning virtually nothing during her time in the public school system about Indigenous culture and history, apart from a single unit about the Haida potlatch system and racist attempts to justify the treatment of Indigenous people. “I didn’t have an opportunity to learn language. I never saw an Indigenous teacher.”

She’s glad this new generation of W̱SÁNEĆ youth will experience school differently. “These young people will be exposed to their culture and tradition. They will be exposed to songs, to dances, to language. They will have a really solid grounding in the things that really matter to them.”

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