Tseshaht Chief Councillor Hugh Braker expressed deep gratitude upon hearing a group of Grade 8 students sing a song in SENĆOŦEN (Saanich) at the First Peoples’ Cultural Council building on the Tsartlip First Nation on Oct 9.
The previous day, Braker was at a meeting of Nuu-chah-nulth hereditary chiefs where some recalled never getting the same freedom, instead being punished in residential schools when they were caught speaking their languages.
One chief remembered being forced to keep a bar of lye soap in his mouth from lunch until dinner.
Another told Braker he was whipped with a maple branch in front of all the other students until he started to bleed.
“These stories I wish were an exception, but they’re actually very common,” Braker said.
“So today we’re really lucky to have the students from the school come and sing us a song, and sing it in their own language.”
Following the students’ song, Braker, who is chair of the New Relationship Trust, presented the First Peoples’ Cultural Council with $750,000 in new funding for language and culture revitalization programs on behalf of the Trust.
The new funding will go toward various language and culture-related projects in First Nations across British Columbia, including programs to develop new fluent speakers in more than 10 languages and support for educators to develop language lessons.
Currently, just one in 20 First Nations people in the province can fluently speak their native languages, according to a 2010 report from the cultural council. Most are elders.
“To me, this (funding) means the suffering that our elders and our hereditary chiefs went through has now turned around. We’re going to go in the other direction to bring language back,” Braker said.
“First Nations communities are never going to be strong and complete until they can recapture, regain and bring back many of the things that were suppressed from them in residential schools.”
Braker’s community will soon see a new “language nest” through the FPCC, which places young children in full language immersion.
Aliana Parker, who runs the language nest program, said it is a huge component of grants given to communities. She said Tsartlip First Nation in Brentwood Bay is a community that has successfully worked with FPCC to revive language and culture over many years.
Tsartlip has built up the language nest program at its LÁU,WELNEW Tribal School, now offering full immersion for preschool to Grade 1 students. It is currently aiming for full immersion up to Grade 5.
Tsartlip elder and language teacher John Elliott (STOCEL) said he has been working to restore language in his community for 40 years, a responsibility passed down to him by his late father, Dave Elliott.
He said while things started small, decades of work have allowed the community to get a grasp on its disappearing Saanich language.
Among other initiatives, he has worked with FPCC to develop FirstVoices language apps and to create new language teachers through the mentor-apprentice program.
“It’s growing really well,” he said.
“The whole thing was quite a chunk of work. But I would tell other communities to never give up, never say you’re beat. As long as you have the desire, the language can live.” More information about FPCC’s programs and language/culture grants is available at www.fpcc.ca.