Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.

Giving Aboriginal Students Words of Their Own

More than a village, it takes a living language to educate a child. Aboriginal educators say BC's government is letting endangered tongues die. Latest in a series on successful First Nations education.

Katie Hyslop 11 Oct

Katie Hyslop reports on education for the non-profit Tyee Solutions Society. This series was produced by Tyee Solutions Society (TSS) in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives Society. Funding for this series was provided by McLean Foundation, Vancouver Foundation, and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. All funders sign releases guaranteeing TSS full editorial autonomy. TSS funders and Tides Canada Initiatives neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Additional reporting was sponsored by CBC Radio and aired on the Daybreak North radio program Sept. 6-9, 2011. To republish articles from this series, please contact TSS Editor Chris Wood here.

image atom
Class learning Squamish language. Photo courtesy

[Editor's note: Kids of First Nations or Aboriginal heritage constitute British Columbia's fastest-growing demographic. They also face the worst odds in life of anyone in the province: barely a 50 per cent chance of graduating high school, and far better than average chance of struggling for employment, with addiction or imprisonment. Earlier episodes in this series produced by Tyee Solutions Society found that independent and public schools which put First Nations culture at the heart of their activity, achieve inspiring success. In this installment, Katie Hyslop reports on the battle some Aboriginal groups are fighting to keep the languages of those cultures alive.

For more on how this issue affects British Columbia's Interior, hear Katie Hyslop's multi-part conversation with Carolina de Ryk and Robert Doane of CBC Radio's Daybreak North.]

Deborah Jacobs doesn't think it's possible for an Aboriginal person to really know themselves, their identity as an indigenous person, if they don't know their own language.

"There are some people who have very little retention of a huge part of their identity, that is the language and the knowledge that comes with the ways of knowing if you're a Squamish person,” for example, says Jacobs, a middle-aged Squamish woman and co-director of the languages subcommittee of the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC), a B.C. organization that pushes for better Aboriginal education and provides assistance to reserve schools.

“Current research tells us that children who are educated in multiple languages are, by far, much more successful in school," Jacobs notes. "If we had resources [FNESC] would be looking at democratizing [language] so it is the right of every citizen within our nation to be educated [in their language]."

Jacobs and her colleagues have been working for over 20 years to strengthen and sustain First Nation's speech in B.C., home to 60 per cent of Canada's Aboriginal languages. And they're failing. Only 32 of the province's 40 languages are currently active. The other eight are "sleeping," meaning there are no native speakers left.

That's despite the efforts of the First People's Heritage, Language and Culture Council, a provincial Crown Corporation created in 1990, "to assist B.C. First Nations in their efforts to revitalize their languages, arts and cultures." In its most recent Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages last year, the Language and Culture Council found barely 5.1 per cent of First Nations British Columbians are fluent in their own languages -- languages that all could speak 120 years ago. Even semi-fluent speakers make up only 8.2 per cent of the population. Perhaps more discouraging to advocates, just 11.1 per cent are making any effort to learn.

The fear of losing culture along with language isn't unique to Canada's indigenous populations. The Canadian Constitution Act granted francophone minorities nationwide the right to publicly funded French education in 1982. Since that time, the Government of British Columbia has granted public funds to Punjabi schools, started Mandarin bilingual programs in larger school districts, and offers classes in Greek, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Korean, all at public expense, with at least the partial aim of preserving the cultures of immigrants who relocate to Canada.

None of those languages is as near to extinction as are many Aboriginal ones, whose fluent speakers are dying faster than the young can learn their native tongue. Without this knowledge, Aboriginal leaders argue, Canada's Aboriginal people lose a part of their history and a part of themselves, finally delivering on the goal of the residential school system.

Canada formally recognized Aboriginal Canadians' rights to teach their children in the own language when we endorsed the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples last year. But the government funds and resources that do go towards Aboriginal language revitalization are paltry compared to what the francophone population receives for their public schools. A clear difference between the two issues, however, is that the provincial and national purse strings are held by people who don't speak Aboriginal languages and who, language advocates insist, don't understand, the loss to Aboriginal culture and knowledge if these languages are allowed to disappear.

Jacobs spoke to the Tyee Solutions Society in an empty ballroom at the Coast Plaza Hotel and Suites in downtown Vancouver. She was taking a break from a conference -- the seventh FNESC has held -- on the confluence of languages, cultural heritage and the future of aboriginal people and communities. The event was packed -- despite the fact it was taking place two weeks into summer break. The overflow attendance of close to 300 people, mainly language teachers, was a long way from the first conference in Prince George in 2004, where only a few dozen showed up.

'Elders are the professors': Jacobs

"What has changed," Jacobs explained, "is the elders." For many who went through residential schools in the last century, helping now to preserve and pass on native languages is, "very much a healing process," she says. "These are people who were born wrapped in their first language, and there was incredible disruption going to residential school." Now those same elders represent the largest population of fluent language First Nations speakers. The Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages calculates 52.4 per cent of fluent Aboriginal language speakers are over 65 years old, and another 39 per cent 45 to 65.

Elders are the majority of language teachers, and only they can determine if a speaker has achieved fluency. But children are the future of languages: over 70 per cent of people learning first languages in the province are under 24 years of age. And with the introduction of "language nests" (early childhood programs where children hear only the traditional language), government-run Head Start early childhood programs that incorporate Aboriginal languages into curriculum, and even Aboriginal language classes at Aboriginal and some public schools, opportunities for children to learn their own language have improved in the past 20 years.

It's still not enough, says Tracey Herbert, executive director of the Language and Culture Council. "First Nations people are still not in charge of the education of their children," Herbert observes. "We don't get to make a lot of decisions or policies with regard to the education of our children and how money is spent. That's still being determined by other people, who, quite frankly, don't have a lot of knowledge about indigenous languages and may not value them."

Herbert believes that with fluent elders being lost to many First Nations families, schools must take up the role of saving languages. She points to the Chief Atahm Immersion School, on the Adams Lake reserve, as an example of getting it right, but says most schools don't have the appropriate funding to cover the resources or hire the teachers to instruct language in a meaningful way.

And as important as they may be to revitalizing languages, schools cannot rely solely on fluent elders who are steadily aging out of their teaching years. Some post-secondary institutions in the province are taking on the task of training new generations of teachers in Aboriginal languages. The University of Victoria, for example, offers diploma and graduate certificate programs in indigenous language revitalization through its faculty of education. Herbert's Council aims to expand these programs to all post-secondary institutions in the province to increase access for B.C. Aboriginals to language training.

Even in those teacher-training programs however, elders remain the authority. It's a stipulation Jacobs and FNESC have impressed upon the BC Federation of Teachers and post-secondary partners. When it comes to training and certifying language teachers, they believe elders are the only experts who can attest to a speaker's competence in an Aboriginal language.

"[Elders] are the doctors, they are the professors, of the language," Jacobs believes. "So only [they] can determine whether or not a teacher has a proficiency."

The French Connection

Gerald Fallon believes what's good for francophone ought to be good for Canada's First Nations, too. The University of British Columbia professor of indigenous studies says the guarantee of a publicly funded French education for francophone children outside of Quebec in the Canadian Constitution Act should be copied for the country's Aboriginal population.

"If you want your culture to evolve, your language has to be at the centre of your curriculum, [as the] medium that was used to generate all that knowledge," Fallon explains. "Because if you take it out of the equation, then what you're doing is you're translating [the traditional language] into English. The Aboriginal perspective of how society should work, and why we have education, and what it means to be Aboriginal, is lost."

The Language and Culture Council argues that losing a language is more than the loss of one perspective on society: it also depletes an Aboriginal individual's sense of cultural identity, health and well-being, and robs them of traditional knowledge on physical, spiritual, and mental well-being.

Francophone Canadians not only have the right to have their children taught in their own language, provincial governments pay for French immersion programs and even entire schools that are open to non-francophone students as well. In B.C. alone, nearly 40,000 students were enrolled in a French immersion program in the 2006-07 school year. That's fewer than the 61,828 students who self-identified as Aboriginal in the public system in 2009-10 -- a numbr that itself does not include another 10,000 Aboriginal kids attending reserve schools in B.C. The province doesn't keep track of how much money goes into French immersion programs in BC, but in 2007-08 the federal government gave the province $9.1 million for French programming, at least half of which goes towards French immersion programming.

Fallon believes the same degree of support should exist for Aboriginal languages, too. "Aboriginal language should be a part of any curriculum for Aboriginal students, and it should be included as a choice for non-Aboriginal students, depending on the context. Like, I know in northern Saskatchewan we have some non-Aboriginal students going to Aboriginal schools in order to learn Cree," says Fallon who is not Aboriginal himself but wrote about preserving languages as co-author of the book, First Nations Education in Canada: Progress or Gridlock.

French isn't the only language and culture accommodated by the B.C. government with schools of its own. Independent Punjabi schools first opened in British Columbia in the early 1980s in an effort to protect the Punjabi language -- spoken by close to four per cent of British Columbians today -- as the vessel of Sikh religion and culture. In all, the province spent $258 million in 2009-10 to support 345 independent schools (although not all are based on a language other than English or French).

Moving beyond bilingual mentality

The Government of B.C. does provide some support for the preservation of Aboriginal languages, conspicuously through Herbert’s Council, which owes its existence to the 1990 First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Act.

"It's hard to be a nation or a distinct society if you don't have a language," the Council's executive director says. "And it was brought to the government's attention [at the time of the Council's creation] that languages were declining, and it would be imperative in terms of treaty [negotiations] and all that, to ensure that languages were revitalized and available for First Nations people.

"Because it wasn't a natural phenomenon that led to the decline of languages," Herbert points out. "There was a direct attack on Indigenous languages through the residential school system and the removal of children from their families and communities." In response, she recalled, the Social Credit government of the day, "felt that the best way to contribute to the wellness and wellbeing of indigenous peoples was to contribute to language revitalization."

The provincial government still gives the agency $1.45 million per year for language services. Those include one program that pairs fluent speakers with learners for up to 300 hours of one-to-one instruction over a year. Another, FirstVoices, is an online database that records, documents and archives Aboriginal languages for reference. The organization also receive $1 million a year from the New Relations Trust, a trust fund set up by B.C. First Nations, and is anticipating $700,000 from the federal government this year -- $500,000 more than they have received in the past.

But if B.C.'s vanishing first languages are to live on, the Council says much more money is needed. "We did a business plan, and on an annual basis it would be more like $32 million, just for the community portion of the language investment,” Herbert says. She doesn't feel the sum is out of line, compared to other places. "I believe Australia invests over $260 million a year annually for their [Aboriginal] languages," she says. "I think [its] government has taken their role seriously in terms of trying to make sure that people living there have the opportunity to learn their languages."

But British Columbia isn't about to go outback on education spending any time soon. Asked whether it anticipated any boost in spending on Aboriginal language preservation in future, the Ministry of Education replied by email: "Since 2001, this government has provided over $13 million to the First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Council for First Nations language and cultural revitalization. This level of funding has continued even through tough economic times."

While the federal government has funded the Council in the past, it does not fund language programs in Aboriginal schools. To get such programs off the ground, reserve schools must fundraise in their community or apply for small grants through the Council or philanthropic organizations.

Jacobs says all Canadians ought to question Ottawa's unwillingness to fund First Nations language instruction. "Canada still adheres to a fallacy that there are two founding nations and two founding languages," she says, "and we know this not to be correct at all."

Jacobs suggests that darker, or at least more cynical, motives may exist for federal inaction. "We saw the residential schools, in which language was most definitely to be obliterated, destroyed by any means necessary," she recalls. "So you ask, we've had Stephen Harper apologize [to residential school victims] and here we sit on what, the third, fourth year of that apology? And still nothing significant has happened. There are just words without any action behind those words."

Can money resurrect the dead?

Herbert believes that all 40 Aboriginal languages, and their 59 dialects, could still have a vibrant future in B.C. She cites Hebrew, as a good example of a language that's been revived from decline.

She calls the conference-goers who crowded the Coast Plaza hotel this summer, "champions for these languages." Many, she adds, "have been working in languages for 30-40 years and won't retire because they need successors and people to pass their language down to. So yes, absolutely, with an investment supporting these experts, our languages could be saved and brought back."

The numbers, Fallon counters, say otherwise.

"[Aboriginal people] will have to decide if they have the resources," he says, “because the average size of a band is 700 people. So do they have the critical mass to generate everything they need to offer all those services, including linguistic services and the teaching staff and so on, in all the band schools?" he asks. "That's a huge problem."

There are areas, such as Vancouver Island, where nations are large enough, Fallon says. They could easily create their own school districts using just one language. But whatever is tried, time for some endangered tongues is running out. The Language and Culture Council's report forecasts that the last of the fluent speakers of B.C.'s first languages will go silent in just five years if adequate funding is not reached. We will all lose not only a language, but a part of British Columbia's Aboriginal knowledge, identity and culture.

Tomorrow: Last in this six part series on Successful Practices in First Nations Education. Places outside B.C. that shine as examples.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Education

  • Share:

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

Do You Think Trudeau Will Survive the Next Election?

Take this week's poll