Chiefs raise alarm about First Nations languages in B.C.

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      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.”



      harriet Fancott

      Jul 7, 2010 at 4:23pm

      We should ALL be learning at some of the basics of some of the First Nations languages! It's appalling that we don't learn it in school. (At least I did not).

      Let the culture die out

      Jul 7, 2010 at 5:58pm

      It's survival of the fittest. I'm sure on it will be called racism, but who cares. They get a ton of money from the federal and provicial governments, then turn around and do things like trying to get the name of Stanley Park changed. It is a waste of time to save save a culture that does not contribute anything useful. Just keep it in the history books, its time to move forward. Maybe killing some eagle will make them feel better.

      Bo Gann

      Jul 7, 2010 at 7:28pm

      Agreed! In NZ kids learn the Maori language!

      Though after reading so many racist comments over the whole Stanly Park name change proposal It's obvious so many people lack respect for our native people!

      I guess it's just all to easy to stereotype!


      Jul 7, 2010 at 10:03pm

      You're scared of the language disappearing?

      With all these programming advances in applications and software, can't you create a database of Native languages? Maybe throw in an interfacing tool to teach it to future generations, even translate it through different Native dialects or into Chinese or English or French.

      The Internet, go for it.


      Jul 8, 2010 at 12:59am

      Oh,So now,Its whiteys fault that you cant teach your language to your own people??
      Screww off.


      Jul 8, 2010 at 7:51am

      $5.2 billion!??!?! For 3600 people?!??! That's $1.4 million per person! I'm all for breaks for natives but that's nuts. I've lived and worked in this country all my life and I've never received a dime from the government. In fact I still owe them money from my student loan.


      Jul 8, 2010 at 10:58am

      $5.2 billion!??!?! For 3600 people?!??! That's $1.4 million per person! I'm all for breaks for natives but that's nuts.

      That 5.2 Billion was for all FN - it was a national. Some of that was for infrastructure. You may not have taken cheques from the government but you do benefit from government spending as well. All the roads, water and sewage treatment, policing, health care, transit, postal services, education - are all government services that all Canadians access. No one in the country has not accepted services from the government. The 5.2 Billion was intended to rectify systemic problems such as clean drinking water, emergency services etc.. If you have a student loan then you have been to post-secondary schooling - and it is common knowledge that tuition does not cover the costs of education - therefor you received government subsidy for the education you enjoyed. Not that there's anything wrong with that - but it is important that people understand the realities of government spending when talking about these issues.
      The media is partially to blame for the lack of understanding of what these agreements entail or the situations being discussed when it comes to aboriginal issues.

      Matthew Burrows

      Jul 8, 2010 at 11:20am


      You have it wrong right off the top. The answer to your emphatic !??!?! ?!??! is NO NO NO NO and NO AGAIN!!! $5.2 billion is country-wide, spread across this country and addressing the needs of aboriginal communities across this country.

      Grand Chief Phillip is not from the Squamish Nation, which is where the 3,600 population figure is drawn. He is President of the UBCIC and has been for many years. He's based in the Okanagan, and the money he's talking about with the $5.2 billion is part of the Kelowna Accord, which was a NATIONWIDE initiative which former PM Paul Martin was ushering into being before his minority government was toppled by Layton, Duceppe and Harper in 2004.

      So when Phillip refers to Harper coming in and "trashing" the accord, he's referring to Harper's first term as minority prime minister, starting in January 2006.

      Matt Burrows


      Jul 8, 2010 at 12:25pm

      Hey Derra, Do some research before you make a comment. The Kelowna Accord was for all First Nations in Canada, not just the Squamish people. It was also spread out over ten years. Last census states there are 1.3 million aboriginal people in Canada. Not exactly a windfall.

      R U Kiddingme

      Jul 8, 2010 at 1:49pm

      Language preservation is important. Scholars of history and everyone with an interest in the culture as it was should be encouraged to record everything they can from the remaining speakers.

      But the language is on its last legs regardless. If 100% of the Nation learns it, that's 3,600 people. That's not a market for publication. More importantly, that's not a sizeable audience for anyone who wants to learn it.

      The cited chiefs in this article are showing no leadership to the most important element of their own constituency, which is, I submit, their children and the future children. These young people need an additional barrier of otherness, alienation, melancholy for the past, and grievance against the majority culture like a drowning man needs a BMW. Real leaders would show real courage by diminishing their own importance, and trying to encourage the young to gain the skills to succeed in the present day world, which even they must know is much larger than just Canada or just the white man. We're a species, boys and girls, one that needs people who can look out and forward.

      All other goals are secondary, particularly the stupid, disproven, and evil notion of gaining psychological strength through maximizing our cultural differences.