Revitalizing Indigenous languages is a crucial step towards reconciliation

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      By Ran Sommer

      As National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, a day dedicated to acknowledging the history and ongoing impact of residential schools on Indigenous Peoples, quickly approaches on September 30, it’s important to reflect on the need for preservation of Indigenous languages—the bedrock of First Nations’ culture, identity, and history. This day, observed for the first time in 2021 and now officially recognized as a statutory holiday in British Columbia, serves as a poignant reminder of our collective responsibility to acknowledge the country’s past wrongs and work together towards healing and reconciliation.

      A few years ago, UNESCO reported that 88 of Canada’s 90 Indigenous languages were perilously close to extinction. This crisis is acutely felt in British Columbia, which is home to over 34 First Nation languages (representing more than half of all the Indigenous languages in Canada). This is a frightening reality that is still ongoing today. The residential school system played a significant role in this crisis, as Indigenous children were often prohibited from speaking their native languages—leading to a severe disruption in their intergenerational transmission.

      According to Statistics Canada, 40 Indigenous languages Canada have less than 500 speakers. In many cases, most of those speakers are in their seventies and eighties. However, there is an increase in youth speakers as a result of educational initiatives and access to technology in Indigenous communities. The next generation of Indigenous learners are committed to keeping these ancient languages alive, which was further observed when Simbi Foundation started working closely with these communities to understand what challenges were facing the students in their community.

      Photo courtesy of the Simbi Foundation.

      At Simbi Foundation, our mission is to enhance access to education through the use of technology in remote and refugee communities. We see language revitalization as a critical part of this work. In acknowledgement of the deep link between language and culture, we believe that providing enhanced access to ancient language resources in a modern-day format will make learning more possible and more appealing for students in today’s classrooms.

      Every child deserves a quality education that respects and embraces their cultural heritage, and every child deserves the ability to access that education. That’s why we’re committed to creating, digitizing, recording, and narrating children’s books in local Indigenous languages, including those of the Sxwoyehà:là, Sq’ewqeyl, Ch’iyàqtel, Sto:lo, and Xwchíyò:m nations. This has led to an incredible collaboration between community Elders, parents, teachers, and students to create and develop culturally and locally relevant storybooks in the languages of their ancestors.

      In partnership with Squiala Elementary School and the Nawalakw Community, Simbi Foundation recently brought its collaborative programming and approach to language revitalization to schools in Fraser Valley.

      The preservation of Indigenous languages is more than a noble cause; it's an urgent necessity and an integral part of the journey toward reconciliation. Each language carries unique wisdom, narratives, and perspectives that enrich our collective human experience. Losing them would be an irreplaceable loss for humanity.

      Every Canadian can play a part in this journey. One simple yet meaningful way is to wear an orange shirt on September 30 in observation of the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. This act of solidarity symbolizes our collective commitment to acknowledging and learning from our past, and to supporting the revitalization of Indigenous cultures.

      As we move forward, we remain dedicated to our mission. We will continue to collaborate with Indigenous communities, harness technology, and leverage funding opportunities to ensure these languages are not merely preserved, but thrive in the hearts and minds of future generations. Together, we can ensure that these languages, and the rich cultures they represent, are celebrated and carried forward.

      Ran Sommer is executive director of Simbi Foundation: a Vancouver-based, research-led non-profit organization.