Khelsilem, a 27-year-old member of the Squamish Nation, has been many things in his young life. His first appearance in the Georgia Straight came in 2009 when he was advocating for better broadband access for indigenous communities.
He's also been an environmental activist, artist, and fierce opponent of colonialism. In a recent interview, Khelsilem told the Straight that he has been inspired by his great-grandfather, Andy Paull. Paull trained as a lawyer but was barred from the profession because of his indigenous status.
“He ended up fighting a lot of legal cases pro bono for indigenous people and was a founder of various indigenous-rights organizations, like the Allied Tribes of B.C. and the North American Indian Brotherhood,” Khelsilem said.
Paull spoke four languages and published two newspapers. “In the same way that he could be trailblazing, I can be trailblazing too,” Khelsilem added. “And I’m going to do it in a completely different area than him.”
Khelsilem’s deepest passion is indigenous languages, and his name—pronounced “Kul-SAY-lum”—was passed down from his elders.
He learned the Squamish language in young adulthood. This year, he helped design an immersion program in the Squamish language, which will begin next month at SFU.
He’s also building a coalition to pressure the federal government to enshrine indigenous-language rights. According to Khelsilem, First Nations languages are not disappearing because nobody wants to learn them or because they're too difficult to understand.
“Indigenous languages are dying in Canada because the current government policy doesn’t actually support indigenous languages,” he insisted. “The law needs to change.”
He pointed to New Zealand, where government investment has resulted in far greater promotion of indigenous languages. Khelsilem himself learned the Squamish language in an immersion program—something that could be readily available to indigenous people across the country were there sufficient political will to do this.
Khelsilem also cited studies showing how behaviour can change when people speak different languages. And he believes that aboriginal people’s minds can be decolonized to a certain extent through learning an indigenous dialect.
“In my experience, the language creates a behaviour of respectfulness and reciprocity and carefulness and kindness,” Khelsilem said. “It’s not as bombastic as English or as interrupting and overriding as English can be.”
He maintained that his indigenous language promotes appreciation of the land, community, and relationships in a different manner.
“I really feel that when you are able to become a language speaker, or you are raised with a language, you have a different way of both looking at the world and also a different way of behaving when you operate from the mindset of that language,” he said. “That’s the decolonization that can happen from language reclamation.”