B.C. First Nations languages at risk

There will be no first-language speakers of First Nations languages left in British Columbia within a quarter of a century as a direct legacy of the Indian residential-school system.

UBC associate professor Henry Davis made this projection a couple of hours before Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered an apology to survivors and families of former students of the boarding schools that were meant to assimilate Native youth into the dominant white society.

In his statement in the House of Commons, Harper acknowledged that residential schools in Canada have had a “lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage, and language”.

“If you take away something from somebody, it doesn’t mean they automatically inherit something,” Davis told the Straight of the long-term effects of the loss of language among First Nations people. “If you scrub away the Indian, what is left underneath is not a white guy but in fact a disastrous mess of deculturation, alienation, and lack of social and cultural identity.”

Davis, who studies Salish languages and speaks Lillooet Salish himself, explained that most students who went to the schools immediately after World War II were taught Native languages by their parents, who spoke these fluently. But because the students were made to feel ashamed of their heritage, they didn’t teach their children to speak their aboriginal language.

“So you had this very paradoxical situation: two fluent speakers of a language raising their children entirely in English for the children’s own good because they were indoctrinated with the idea that their languages were a hindrance to education and progress,” Davis said. “That is difficult for First Nations peoples to deal with that, because in a sense it was self-inflicted extinction.”

Davis noted that the Salish-as-a-first-language speakers he works with are now in the 70- to 75-year age range, and “that’s the last generation of fluent speakers”.

“It is certainly the case that within the next five to 25 years, there will be no first-language speakers of a First Nations language in B.C. left,” Davis said. “That’s what it’s done.”

Davis noted that while there are various efforts to revive Native languages, these would mean there would be “at best probably a core of fluent second-language speakers of these languages”.