Indigenous

How Indigenous-led organizations are rebuilding connection to language and culture

Indigenous students find success in culturally-relevant programs. A Nanaimo organization is working to make sure that success continues.

Indigenous

How Indigenous-led organizations are rebuilding connection to language and culture

Indigenous students find success in culturally-relevant programs. A Nanaimo organization is working to make sure that success continues.

Ten of 13 graduates from Tsawalk Learning Centre. Photo: Tim McGrath / Submitted
Indigenous

How Indigenous-led organizations are rebuilding connection to language and culture

Indigenous students find success in culturally-relevant programs. A Nanaimo organization is working to make sure that success continues.

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How Indigenous-led organizations are rebuilding connection to language and culture
Ten of 13 graduates from Tsawalk Learning Centre. Photo: Tim McGrath / Submitted

When Cadence Manson was in Grade 7, he was banned from all Nanaimo public schools.

Growing up in the foster care system without any stable figures in his life or access to his Nuu-chah-nulth culture, Manson struggled with who he was and who he wanted to be. Education wasn’t high on his list of priorities. He got into a lot of trouble, starting fights, setting fires, and flooding buildings. “I was a little punk,” he said. 

He hated school, and when he was expelled Manson thought he would never make it to high school, let alone graduation. 

He was wrong. This year, he graduated with a high school diploma from the Tsawalk Learning Centre along with 12 other students. Many of these students, like Manson, had fallen through the cracks of the public school system and turned to the learning centre for a more individualized learning experience, wraparound support services, and learning centred around culture. 

“It’s a major accomplishment for them,” said Joy Bremner, president of the Mid Island Métis Nation. “I’m smiling the whole time I’m saying this because that’s so important for us, and the exact reason why we’ve been doing all of this.” 

But June’s graduation will be the centre’s last. This month, the Ministry of Education announced that Nanaimo’s two Indigenous-run learning centres, Nisaika Kum’tuks (Kindergarten to Grade 7) and Tsawalk (Grades 8-12), would close and consolidate with the local school system. While Bremner says the school district is trying hard to accommodate these students, this move to a much larger school could be detrimental to some of the more vulnerable and hard-to-engage learners. 

Recently, the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre (NAC) launched a fundraiser to replace the learning centres with what would be BC’s first urban Indigenous independent school. This new learning centre would teach children from Kindergarten to Grade 12, and continue to combine traditional teachings, Indigenous languages, and culture with academics. The organization hopes to open the school in 2022. 

In the meantime, the learning centres’ students are facing a transition this fall back into public school, a system that has let many of them down in the past. 

Most of these students struggle with a lack of connection to their culture and understanding of where they come from. And opportunities to learn Indigenous languages have been severely damaged by the appalling legacy of residential schools. 

But Indigenous-led organizations are working to help Indigenous people heal from the harm of colonial systems through reclamation of their culture and ensuring their languages live on. 

Finding culture

Manson was one of the first students to start at Tsawalk when it opened in 2016. 

After he was expelled from the Nanaimo school district, his probation officer required him to enroll in an alternative education program. After taking a few months off school, he enrolled in ABOUT (Alternative Based Opportunities United by Teamwork), which boasts individualized supports and flexible scheduling. But after picking some fights, he was kicked out of that program, too. 

It wasn’t until he enrolled at Tsawalk that he found something that worked for him. 

The learning centres, Nisaika Kum’tuks and Tsawalk, were opened in 2014 and 2016 by the NAC and the Mid Island Métis Nation in collaboration with the Vancouver Island West School District 84 to meet the needs of highly vulnerable and hard-to-engage Indigenous students. 

The centres teach a combined total of 100 students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 each year, 85% of whom are Indigenous. Most of the students are from single-family homes struggling with poverty and intergenerational trauma, and about one in three students are in, or have come through, the foster care system. 

Among the Indigenous students, 23 different nations are represented. But Greg Charleson, an Elder and cultural support worker at Tsawalk, estimates that at least 80% of the Indigenous students who attend are not initially connected to their culture. 

As a residential school survivor, he has experienced firsthand the violent erasure that took place in these institutions. He sees parallels in the foster care system, which he calls the “second residential school cycle,” with children being apprehended and taken away from their families, culture, and protocols. He says those who attend the learning centres find strength and power from discovering who they are and where they come from. 

Students participate in an Orange Shirt Day event at Tsawalk Learning Centre. Photo: Tim McGrath / Submitted

Growing up in group homes and foster care, Manson never had an opportunity to learn about his Nuu-chah-nulth culture or language. It wasn’t until he was introduced to Tsawalk’s Land and Sea program that he began to discover his cultural identity. 

The program changes with the seasons; students canoe on the ocean, plant trees, learn to hunt and fish, and how to prepare and preserve land-harvested meat.

In the program, people from First Nations across the West Coast come together to paddle down to Seattle and back, sharing songs and stories, and eating well. 

Manson didn’t attend the canoe trip to learn about those things, however. His first year, he says, he thought of the long trip as more of a workout than a chance to learn about his culture.

“That was back when I didn’t really have a cultural identity,” he said. “And then after they got me to go a second year the year following and that’s when I really started falling into my culture.”

Language is strength

When Charleson was a child, he thought only Elders were allowed to speak their traditional languages. 

“I would hear Elders and grey-haired people speak in their language, and I said, ‘Man, I can’t wait to get old to speak my language,’ not fully understanding why we couldn’t speak our language,” he said. 

At Tsawalk, Charleson teaches some Nuu-chah-nulth, but there are also opportunities for students to learn Hul’q’umi’num, the language spoken by Snuneymuxw First Nation, Cowichan Tribes, and Penelakut Tribe. Elders from various nations and professors from Vancouver Island University also visit the school and share their languages.

Onowa McIvor, associate professor of Indigenous education at UVic and an expert in Indigenous language revitalization, says language is the strength of Indigenous Peoples. It is the foundation of cultures, and reclaiming and reviving languages can be healing.

“It’s true, really, for any culture, that your story, your history, the tradition that you hold, and particularly the worldview, the way that you see the world, is really embedded in the original languages that you speak,” she says. “So, when we lose our languages, or our languages are damaged through colonial violence, colonial erasure, as has happened in Canada, it really does foundational damage to Indigenous people.” 

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The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that Indigenous Peoples have the right to revitalize their languages, and to establish institutions providing education in their own languages.

In Victoria, multiple school boards offer Indigenous language programs. Notably, the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board has a SENĆOŦEN immersion program for children in Grades 1 to 5. No English language is spoken, and children also spend 2.5 hours each day learning outside by engaging with nature and visiting culturally significant places. The school board also offers SENĆOŦEN classes for preschool and Kindergarten-aged kids, as well as adults. 

For over 20 years, the Bayside Middle School in Saanich has offered an introductory SENĆOŦEN language class for students in Grades 6 to 8. Last year, the Saanich School District also began sending SENĆOŦEN teachers to Kindergarten classes throughout the district to share stories, songs, and language-learning opportunities. 

“It’s just a great opportunity for local Indigenous students to be able to experience their language and culture within their everyday school experience,” said Melissa Austin, district principal of Indigenous education at Saanich School District, adding that non-Indigenous students, and even their parents, benefit as well.

“There are a lot of names that are English names that we use… that really originate from SENĆOŦEN. So kids start to learn more about place names and about those connections and how a lot of those English names actually derived from SENĆOŦEN place names.”

For example, Saanich is the anglicized name for W̱SÁNEĆ.

The Saanich School Board works collaboratively with W̱SÁNEĆ School Board on language revitalization efforts, and Austin said it’s exciting to see how many students go on from these programs to become teachers of the language.

The Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s call to action #14 directs the federal government to enact an Aboriginal Languages Act that includes funding revitalization efforts and acknowledges the urgency to preserve Indigenous languages across the country. Bill C-91, The Indigenous Languages Act, passed in June 2019 and includes $333.7 million in funding over a five-year period and $115.7 million annually after. 

Between 2019-21, the federal government has contributed more than $31.6 million to language programs across Western Canada. In BC, this includes the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, which in 2020-21 helped fund 120 community-driven projects in 29 of the 34 languages spoken by BC First Nations, including the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board. 

The council also recently created the online First Peoples’ Map, which has interactive information on languages, cultural heritage, and art from each of the 204 First Nations communities and language regions in British Columbia. 

In 2018, the Government of BC invested $50 million over three years for Indigenous language revitalization, but the funding was not renewed or replaced in this year’s budget.

In a statement, the First Peoples’ Cultural Council said the remaining $10 million of the promised funding will be dispersed throughout the rest of the year. But this amount is not enough to meet the demand. 

“Indigenous language, cultural heritage, and art revitalization is complex work that requires sustained resources and it will take significant time and effort,” the statement read. The council is advocating for short-term funding to cover this fiscal year, followed by sustainable long-term funding for Indigenous culture and language programing.  

‘We are all one’

The word tsawalk, meaning “one,” comes from the Nuu-chah-nulth phrase hishuk ish tsawalk, meaning “we are all one;” everything is connected. 

“We’re all connected on the spectrums of humanity,” Charleson said. “And when we can breathe those teachings in—that we all matter, that trees standing matters just as much as that child standing—[we are] able to give love, empathy, compassion to all of the world and to all of the kids that come through here.”

Charleson has a phrase that he says often throughout our talk: connection is the correction. Reconnecting to culture and revitalizing language is a way for Indigenous Peoples to begin to heal and overcome past traumas.

McIvor emphasizes that language erasure and the loss of culture that has happened in Canada was done to Indigenous people through forced assimilation. “This was violent, intentional erasure,” she says. 

McIvor has created a guide to Indigenous languages with actionable items that anyone can do. These include learning the name of your town or city in the regional Indigenous languages, learning a greeting, and advocating for Indigenous-led language instruction in schools. 

“Actually learning the original names in the territory that you live in and using them in everyday practice, not just when you’re standing at a podium, but when you’re meeting your friend for a walk, is an act of decolonization,” she said. “It is a way that you can tangibly be part of returning what was stolen, what was taken away.”

The process of decolonization consists of coordinated action, but it also requires empathy and understanding: not everyone wants to learn or has the capacity to learn their traditional language, and that should be OK too, McIvor says.

“Very famously, my friend, late Trish Rosborough said our parents and grandparents were shamed for speaking their language. And now we’re shamed for not speaking our language. And there’s enough shame. We need to stop with the shaming.” 

Manson is not at all ashamed of his culture—he is proud. Discovering his Indigenous identity has been life-changing; he now knows who he is and where he comes from. And this discovery has made him want to learn more.

Now that he's graduated, Manson has a job working as an assistant with the Land and Sea program. And his next goal is to learn more of his Nuu-chah-nulth language.

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