More than 34 First Nations languages and 61 dialects are spoken in British Columbia, a figure that represents 60 per cent of all First Nations languages in Canada. But where languages such as Cree and Ojibwe count tens of thousands of speakers across wide swathes of the country, many of the unique languages in B.C. are spoken by a mere handful of elders.
One such language is Kwak’wala, spoken by the Wei Wei Kum and Wei Wei Kai nations near Campbell River, B.C. For the last two years, members from each nation—elder Frances Quocksister and Melanie Stapley, respectively—have worked together to help preserve the language as a Mentor-Apprentice team, part of an ongoing immersion program run by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC).
“My grandfather … went to residential school, which basically stopped all of the language knowledge from passing on to his children … so it’s huge to be able to go out and have that revitalization,” said Stapley, a supervisor at the Wei Wei Kai childcare centre on Quadra Island who oversees the centre’s language and culture program,
The Anglican Healing Fund has granted $15,000 to the Anglican-founded, Victoria, B.C.-based group called Aboriginal Neighbours to support the project Revitalizing Indigenous Living Languages: A Gift to Future Generations, which supports engagement in FPCC’s three-year Mentor-Apprentice Program. The grant includes three $5,000 honorariums for elder-teachers on mentor-apprentice teams in Ladysmith and Port Hardy, as well as a third team in a location yet to be determined.
In the Mentor-Apprentice Program, mentors and apprentices spend a total of 900 hours together speaking the language one-on-one over the course of three years.
Every week, Melanie Stapley spends 10 to 12 hours with her mentor, Frances Quocksister. They meet at Quocksister’s house at the beginning of each day and sit at the kitchen table for activities such as reading picture books, in which Stapley will describe in Kwak’wala what is happening in different pictures. The pair will often play card or board games together, and occasionally members of other mentor-apprentice teams in the community will join them.
“When I started [the program, my knowledge of Kwak’wala] was very beginning[-level],” Stapley recalled. “I basically knew how to say [the words for] animals and numbers … [There aren’t] a lot of people in our community that speak the language, so even hearing it was pretty foreign for me.”
After 600 hours of language experience in the first two years, Stapley is now able to engage in fairly complete conversations in Kwak’wala with her mentor.
Aboriginal Neighbours, an ecumenical group initiated by the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia that brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous members in support of justice for First Peoples, has played a key role in helping to raise money for the Mentor-Apprentice Program.
The group’s involvement began in February 2015, when treasurer Ruth D’Hollander attended a special display of the exhibition Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in B.C. at the Royal B.C. Museum. During a panel discussion at the display, which was organized for International Mother Language Day, speakers discussed efforts within the province to revitalize Indigenous languages.
D’Hollander, who is non-Indigenous, was at the time becoming more aware of the colonial and racist values that drove the residential school system, and the role of the schools in contributing to language loss.
“I realized that it was our government and our churches who took these languages away … I’d been to many hearings here on Vancouver Island and in Vancouver, and I heard so many people firsthand talk about being beaten and shamed for using their mother tongue,” she recalled, adding, “The whole injustice of it just hit me hard.”
When D’Hollander asked the panel what single action might best address their most pressing concerns, speakers immediately raised the issue of language revitalization. Dr. Peter Jacobs, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Victoria who is of Skwxwu7mesh (Squamish) and Kwagulh (Kwakiutl) ancestry, pointed to support for the Mentor-Apprentice program as a particularly effective way to preserve Indigenous languages.
An effective learning model
For the last three years, Jacobs has been researching the Mentor-Apprentice Program and studying outcomes for both mentors and apprentices. His findings have determined that the program offers significant advantages over other forms of language instruction, chief among them more immersion time for learners to become conversant in the language.
By comparison, other models for language instruction, such as classroom-based courses, generally involve fewer hours of immersion and intensity, and require a greater capacity of people to fill classes. Compared to Cree and Ojibwe, less prevalent languages such as Kwak’wala are unable to mobilize the necessary resources and people to sustain programs such as university-based courses.
“Right now, for some communities, [the Mentor-Apprentice Program] will be the most effective way to create a new generation of speakers for the time being,” Jacobs said.
The program, he added, offers a deeper meaning and engagement for mentors and apprentices alike. For mentors, helping to recover their language by passing it on to the generation can have a significant positive healing effect.
Apprentices, meanwhile, often find employment in their communities directly related to language revitalization, such as becoming teachers. A large percentage go on to pursue higher education in order to better support local language initiatives.
“The apprentices are becoming leaders in their community in many different ways … They’re really having a clear connection with their identity, with their language and their culture, and they’re attributing that to the other effects that it’s having in their [lives], like getting motivation to go to school or things like that.”
Crucial to the success of the Mentor-Apprentice Program are honorariums and stipends given to teams, based on evaluations from teams of community elders on the progress of the learner that take place every 100 hours of immersion.
Typically, mentors receive $25 per hour, while learners receive $20 per hour. Those stipends enable young people to devote the necessary time to participating in learning the language, which may require taking time off work.
“That’s where the money part becomes crucial, because you can’t really ask someone to take 300 hours out of their life every year—unless they already had money, but they don’t,” Jacobs said.
Stipends also enable elders—many of whom are on low incomes—to participate in the program, and serve in many ways to affirm the wealth of knowledge they offer as mentors.
In the case of her own mentor, Melanie Stapley said, “it allows her to be able to go out and do things that she might not have been able to do. It also gives her consistency. I go to her house every day and can help her with things.”
Working through Aboriginal Neighbours, D’Hollander has led efforts to raise $47,000 for the Mentor-Apprentice Program by applying for grants from organizations that included the Anglican Healing Fund and the Anglican Foundation of Canada. Anglican contributions include the $15,000 grant from the Healing Fund and two consecutive $10,000 donations from the Anglican Foundation.
In light of a growing sense of urgency to preserve languages at risk of extinction, every little bit helps.
“This is a real state of emergency, because the people who have the language to pass it on are dying,” D’Hollander said.
“These are the elders, these are the residential school survivors, and we don’t have much time for this. We don’t have much time left.”
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