A Squamish Nation chief says it’s “very alarming” that the number of people who speak the Squamish language fluently amounts to one soccer team plus a substitute.
“We have about 12 fluent speakers out of a total of 3,600 people,” Chief Ian Campbell, cultural ambassador for the Squamish Nation, told the Georgia Straight by phone. “That’s less than one percent of our tribe right now speaking. The young people know a lot of words in the language, but they are not conversing in the language.”
The 37-year-old chief said he is proficient in the Squamish language, but not fluent. According to Campbell, a few weeks ago, the Squamish Nation council conducted a “strategic-planning exercise” in which he recommended that the band government “separate language from education, in the sense of really creating a language and heritage department within the Squamish Nation”.
Campbell said he’d like that department to oversee “the archiving and usage of language in rights and title and governance, and also have an educational role where we are teaching the children” the Squamish language.
In April, the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council released its Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages 2010. The report found that “every First Nations language in B.C. is in danger of being lost,” according a fact sheet. It states that B.C. is home to 32 distinct First Nations languages, around 60 percent of the national total.
The report also found that only 31 percent (53 communities) have recordings of their language available as a community resource, while only 52 percent (88 communities) have curriculum materials for teaching the language.
Revitalization is important, according to the report, because language “represents the identity of a people and holds cultural, historical, scientific and ecological knowledge”.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, told the Straight by phone that, when he was less than a year old, he was taken from his family and placed in foster care. He did not return to his community for more than two decades, and at age 60 he understands only snippets of his ancestral tongue.
According to Phillip, the report’s findings are “very much at the top of everyone’s political agenda”. He said he’s certain the issue will be raised at the Assembly of First Nations’ upcoming annual general assembly, which will take place in Winnipeg from July 20 to 22.
“It’s an enormous concern of all First Nations communities from across the province and across the country,” Phillip said.
Phillip gave Prime Minister Stephen Harper a failing grade in the area of language preservation.
“If I had to choose a word, it would be abysmal,” Phillip said. “The Conservative government of Canada has been very adverse and hostile towards aboriginal peoples in this country. When they first came to power, the first thing they did was trash the so-called Kelowna Accord, which represented $5.2 billion in desperately needed investment into our communities, in the areas of education, health, housing, and economic development.”
An opportunity was missed again in 2008, according to Phillip, when Harper apologized to residential-school survivors but did not earmark sufficient resources for the preservation of languages and culture.
“We’re at the brink,” Phillip said. “We’re staring into the abyss. And I think, by and large, the national aboriginal leadership—as well as regional aboriginal leaders, as well as local aboriginal leaders—are finally starting to offer a greater standing and priority to the recovery of language and culture.”
Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl was unavailable for comment. Strahl’s staff referred the Straight to Heritage Minister James Moore, who did not return a message by the Straight’s deadline.
Phillip said his five-year-old grandson Marcus recently gave him cause for optimism by singing a song in the Okanagan language.
“When he’s happy, he sings,” Phillip said. “One day, I started to listen to what he was singing, and I was absolutely shocked. He was singing an Indian song. That’s what he’s learning at [his band-operated] school.”