The struggle to save Northern BC’s languages

🕔Apr 06, 2007

Phillip Stewart of Gitanmaax is racing against time. He’s 38, and his grandmother, a full-blooded Gitxsan, is 78. She speaks Gitxsan, and her English is limited. Stewart, born in Gitanmaax but raised primarily in Prince George, grew up speaking English.

“I wouldn’t mind having conversations in our language with my grandmother,” he says, with a catch in his voice. “I haven’t done that, and I’m desperately trying to learn how before she leaves us.”

Phillip knows his predicament is common among northern BC’s First Nations youth. “About 70 per cent of Gitxsan people are 30 or younger, and most of them don’t know our language,” he says.

In terms of First Nations languages, BC is the most linguistically diverse of the provinces, with about 26 of Canada’s 60 indigenous languages. From one valley to another—such as the Gitxsan in the Skeena to the Wet’suwet’en in the Bulkley Valley—Canada’s indigenous languages can be as different as night and day, but share one disturbing feature: they are among the world’s most endangered. Ten have already become extinct.

Many forces have combined to make this happen, but two deserve special mention: Canada’s system of residential schools [see sidebar], and the pervasive reach of English-dominated media.

“Technology has a lot to do with it,” says Stewart, alluding to the broad range of music-, TV- and internet-based entertainment that competes for attention with old art forms. “And residential schools were a big contributor to the loss of our language… A lot of students were forbidden to speak their languages, and punished when they did.”

As an employee of the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en Education Society, Philip is working hard to rescue the Gitxsan language. For more than five years, GWES has been overseeing the creation of a Gitxsanimax dictionary on CD ROM. Stewart is part of a team headed up by Marge McRae, who helped conceptualize and find funding for the project through the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language & Culture Council.

Together with a Gitxsan language specialist and graphic and web designers, Stewart brings in Gitxsan elders who are fluent in its two dialects: Gigeenix and Gyeets, traditionally spoken by people in the east and west in Gitxsan territories.

The project, which is unique in that it is completely managed and staffed by First Nations, has attracted interest from other groups around BC. “We get calls from other First Nations who want us to help get their projects off the ground,” reports Stewart.

They’ve already produced four CDs featuring basic grammar, traditional stories, and themed subjects such as basic commands, greetings, colours, animals, kinship, and the feast hall. The CDs are offered free to band- and provincially-administered schools and sold to individuals for a nominal fee.

The effort to save indigenous languages from extinction has been going on in northern BC for at least 25 years. Most bands have established language authorities which officially recognize fluency in the language and culture, and recommend individuals to the BC College of Teachers for certification as First Nations Interim Language Teachers. First Nations language training is now accepted for the second-language requirement of many universities.

And it’s lately received a significant boost from post-secondary educational institutions in northern BC.

For example, the College of New Caledonia in Mackenzie has partnered with the McLeod Lake Indian Band to record the Tse’khene language, thought to be spoken, written and understood by less than one percent of the McLeod Lake people. They’ve already uploaded almost 5,500 words and phrases as text and audio to, an online indigenous language archive database maintained by the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation.

UNBC now offers a diploma of First Nations Language, and Developmental Standard Term Certificate programs in Gitxsan, Nisga’a, Carrier and Ts’msyen Sm’algyax in partnership with their respective language authorities. These require the equivalent of three years of full-time university study, including courses in education, language and linguistics.

In Prince Rupert, UNBC First Nations Studies professor Margaret Anderson is working with other linguists and Tsimshian educators who’ve done an enormous amount of work to preserve and strengthen the Sm’algyax language.

She began studying the Tshimshian language in the early 1970s, when she first visited Hartley Bay and began recording fluent Sm’algyax speakers telling traditional Tsimshian stories.

“The community identified fluent speakers to work with,” remembers Anderson. “They were so sweet, wonderful—we had a lot of fun. They recorded a lot of songs…and wanted to show me things like how to get bark and harvest indian rice.”

Working with the Ts’msyen Sm’algyax Authority and the First Nations Education Office of School District 52, she’s created the Sm’algyax Living Legacy Talking Dictionary (online at

With Tsimshian assistance, she’s helping to decode the stuff that holds words and phrases together as language but challenges most of us to explain: grammar. Last year, she created 14 user-friendly Sm’algyax grammar modules and a new text for adult learners. The modules present grammatical patterns as colour-coded templates that clearly illustrate how sentences are put together.

People involved in preserving and strengthening indigenous languages say this work is empowering for everyone involved. “There’s a noticeable difference in self-esteem among the kids,” says Tammy Blumhagen, an accredited teacher who team-teaches Sm’algyax with Theresa Lowther, who learned the language “from the cradle” in Hartley Bay. They teach students between grades five and 12.

By learning Sm’algyax, kids are learning about many aspects of Tsimshian culture—such as feasting, where hereditary names are bestowed, lives are celebrated, and accomplishments are recognized. Language lessons convey traditional skills and values: commitment, respect, responsibility, speechmaking, harvesting food, cooking.

Blumehagen is thrilled that her own son, a dedicated student of Sm’algyax, is now training to be a teacher himself.

“Language is the biggest part of our culture,” says Phillip Stewart, in Gitanmaax. “It proves our existence.”

He becomes animated when he talks about how the effort has resonated among his community. “The elders are really happy about this,” he says, recalling one woman whose face just “lit up” when he spoke correctly to her in Gitxsan. He says older people are often uncomfortable at first with all the recording technology. “But once they’re in here, they love it, and ask to be called back.”

Last November, the effort to rescue indigenous languages took a serious hit. The Canadian Heritage Minister cut 68 per cent of funds allocated by the Liberals in 2002 for aboriginal language preservation for the next 10 years. The full effects of this decision have yet to be felt, says Stewart, but he predicts it will be a “big, big loss” to the program. However, he is determined to proceed with this work, somehow.

Blumenhagen is also disappointed. “I think the federal government should consider our languages on at least the same footing as it does French,” she says.

Anderson says government offers lip service to the potential for cultural tourism as an activity that could provide a living in remote areas, without offering necessary supports for a key ingredient of culture: language.

“There were a great many resources provided by government, through institutions such as residential schools, to destroy these languages,” she observes. “If these languages are going to be revitalized we have to make significant resources available.”

Estimated Number of First-Language Speakers of Northern BC Indigenous Languages

Haida (Haida Gwaii, a.k.a. Queen Charlotte Islands): 50
Tlingit (north coast): 575

Athabascan languages
Dakelh (Central Interior): 1000
Dene-thah / Slave (northeastern BC): 400 (of about 3,000 total, including Nunavut)
Beaver/Dunne-za (Peace River area, Alberta): 300
Kaska (far northern BC): 400
Sekani (northeastern BC): 50
Tagish (southern Yukon, northern BC): 2
Tahltan (northwest, Iskut): 35
Babine-Witsuwit’en (Bulkley Valley, Lakes District): 500

Tsimshian languages
Coast Tsimshian (north coast, communities near Prince Rupert): 800
South Tsimshian(Klemtu): 1
Gitksan (Kispiox, Skeena valleys):1000
Nisga’a (Nass River Valley): 700

Wakashan languages
Haisla (Kitimaat, Kitlope): 250
Heiltsuk (Bella Bella, Klemtu): 450

(source: Yinka Déné Language Institute,

© Larissa Ardis 2007

Residential schools and lost languages

MORICETOWN—During a Wet’suwet’en Youth Conference held in Moricetown in late March, Wet’suwet’en kids were given an opportunity to learn about a critical contributor to the loss of indigenous languages: Canada’s residential school system.

“It’s a very painful subject among our people,” says Ron Mitchell, house chief of the Geneghlhayikh (House of Many Eyes) in the Frog Clan. He co-ordinated six hours of conference workshops for youth aged 13 to 24. “Most Canadians still aren’t aware that the federal government and churches enacted a radical, century-long experiment in re-socialization of First Nations people.”

He explains: from at least the 1880s, First Nations children were taken from their families to distant boarding schools to be “civilized.” Placed in loveless institutions, children were separated from their siblings, forbidden to speak their own languages, ridiculed for their beliefs, forced to adopt foreign values and habits, and subjected to an inappropriate, inadequate education. Malnourishment, physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of instructors was rampant.

“For almost 100 years, one-third of First Nations children spent most of their childhood in these institutions,” says Mitchell. He notes intergenerational effects that extend far beyond the pain of the 80,000 survivors still living: fractured families, eroded parenting skills, distrust of authority, addictions and, of course, lost languages.

Dallas Nikal, a 16-year-old from Moricetown, worked with four other youth to help plan the conference. He’s long heard firsthand stories from relatives about Lejac, a notorious residential school at Fraser Lake from 1910 until 1976. In one well-documented 1937 incident, four native boys, fleeing the school in mid-winter, ended up freezing to death within sight of their own village.

Dallas’s grandfather, as a child, was one of the few who avoided Lejac—because his parents hid him in the bush whenever authorities arrived to take children to the schools.

Until recently, Dallas didn’t think it personally affected him. “Then I was asked, ‘Can you speak your own language?’” relates Dallas. “It clicked…my grandmother remembers being smacked by teachers, when she was a little girl, for speaking our language. Basically they tried to beat the culture out of us.”

Dallas believes it’s important to talk about the impact of residential schools on his community—not only among First Nations kids. “When I talk to my non-native friends about this, most don’t even know about it.”

To help more kids like Dallas understand the legacy of residential schools, Mitchell screened Where the Spirit Lives, a Canadian feature film about the schools. He also brought in some Wet’suwet’en residential school survivors to talk about their own experiences.

Faced with mounting evidence that residential schools were poorly managed and devastating to First Nations, government began closing them in the 1950s. In 1998, two years after the last one closed, the Canadian government acknowledged this harm with a Statement of Reconciliation. Since then, almost $3 billion has been earmarked for survivors’ compensation and legal fees.

“As far as I’m aware, no Wet’suwet’en have received any compensation for their sufferings at places like Lejac,” says Mitchell.

Other northern BC residential schools included Kitimaat, Metlakatla, Greenville, Port Simpson, and Fort St. James.

© Larissa Ardis 2007