The language teachers

A new university program builds on decades of learning (and teaching) to train the next generation of Halq'eméylem speakers how best to share their language.

By Grace Kennedy | November 9, 2022 |5:00 am

This story is the third in our ongoing series about Halq’eméylem and the people working to save it. Find the others here:


Dianna Kay has a small and secret desire: to hear the students at Seabird Island Community School speaking Halq’eméylem on the playground.

“My secret little dream is that when, for example, a substitute teacher comes into the classroom, our children are able to converse in the language. And the substitute teacher will be like ‘What’s going on?’” she said.

“That’s our big goal. We’re not there yet. But we’re working towards it.”

Kay is doing her part to make that happen. As the language curriculum developer for Seabird Island Community School, she has gotten to see Halq’eméylem words be incorporated into day-to-day life at the K-12 school. Elementary classrooms are teaching numbers and the calendar in both English and Halq’eméylem, and all classes have their morning protocol in the endangered Indigenous language.

But in order to teach the kids, you need to have the teachers.

Today, new programs are building on decades-old academic foundations to train the next generation of Halq’eméylem speakers how best to share their language.

Story continues below.

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Before the lessons

The 1960s and the 1970s were not a good time to be an Indigenous person, Kay said. Indigenous children were taken from their homes to be adopted into largely non-Indigenous households during the Sixties Scoop, often without the consent or knowledge of their families. Roughly a third of Indigenous people had a “Native Indian” language as their mother tongue—a percentage that would go down significantly as the decades went on—and both residential schools and Indian Day Schools were still well-funded and used.

In 1969, Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chretien released a policy paper that argued Indigenous people should be assimilated into the rest of Canada by eliminating reserves, abolishing the Indian Act, and removing all previously signed treaties. The backlash was monumental—and only three years later, the National Indian Brotherhood released its own counter-policy paper: Indian Control of Indian Education. (The National Indian Brotherhood continues today as the Assembly of First Nations.)

“Knowing his maternal language helps a man to know himself; being proud of his language helps a man to be proud of himself,” the paper read. “The Indian people are expressing growing concern that the native languages are being lost; that the younger generations can no longer speak or understand their mother tongue. If the Indian identity is to be preserved, steps must be taken to reverse this trend.”

Although the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development endorsed the paper in principle, it did almost nothing to make change happen. But for years, Stó:lō elders had already been working to implement the changes the paper outlined here in the Fraser Valley.

Fluent Halq’eméylem speakers like Qw’etosiya Nancy Phillips was already teaching the language to students at the Sts’ailes Community School, and was one of the first members of the Sts’ailes school committee working to bring education back under control of the nation. Young mother Siyamtelot Shirley Leon ran for a school board trustee in the late 1960s and won—using her position to advocate for Indigenous youth in the public school system.

Siyamoten Bob Hall and Siyólewethet Roy Point were other early advocates for Indigenous education—collecting Stó:lō elders together in the Skowkale Heritage Project to document Stó:lō culture and history. When the federal government began offering small grants to start up Cultural Education Centres across the country—one of the few concrete actions the government implemented after the National Indian Brotherhood’s paper—the Skowkale Heritage Project became the Coqualeetza Education Centre.

The education centre was formally started in 1973, on the grounds that had once held the Coqualeetza Residential School. The following year, it partnered with Fraser Valley College (now the University of the Fraser Valley).

From elders to teachers

Elders worked with linguist Brent Galloway (standing, second left) to document and preserve Halq’eméylem. Pictured: (standing left to right) Roy Point, Brent Galloway, Albert Phillips, Wilfred Charlie, Tillie Gutierrez, Edna Bobb, Jean Silver. (Seated left to right) Nancy Phillips, Elizabeth Phillips, Amelia Douglas. 📸 Chilliwack Progress, 20 October 1976/Chilliwack Museum and Archives.

A shift came when the program hired Brent Galloway, a young, vibrant linguist who was entranced by unusual languages. A non-Indigenous man from California, he had first travelled to the Fraser Valley in 1970 to document Halq’eméylem with Soowahlie elder Amy Cooper as part of his PhD thesis. His love of music helped him hear the tones and rhythms of the language, which were distinct from English. After three years learning in the community, he knew Halq’eméylem well enough to give a speech in the language for a dance at Tzeachten.

He knew he wanted to come back. So when the opportunity came to spearhead a Halq’eméylem program at the Coqualeetza Cultural Education Centre, he accepted it.

Starting in 1974, Stó:lō elders worked with Galloway to not only record the language, but also develop a written system for it for the first time. Each Wednesday, they would gather to converse in Halq’eméylem, puzzling out difficult phrases or tenses. They figured out how to document the words, and together created the big green dictionary of Halq’eméylem that is still in use today.

It was the first step in preserving the language for future generations. But just as important was the formal teacher’s program that began that same year. (Siyamiyateliyot Elizabeth Phillips was the youngest graduate of the program. You can read more about her life here.)

The course was open to fluent Halq’eméylem speakers, and gave them formal training in the new written system for the language, as well as training in how to teach it to the next generation. The first class of 11 students graduated in December 1976. For many students, whose ages ranged from 37 to 69, it was the first graduation ceremony they ever had.

“The elders should pass on their wisdom and experience to the young so they can live in the modern world of today,” Chief Dan George, a guest speaker at the graduation said. “It is a very pleasing thing to see these graduates showing the way to their children.

“Times have changed greatly in the past decades,” he continued. “Young people must have a good education to succeed in society.”

The students, meanwhile, hailed the program leaders: Shirley Leon and Galloway.

“They gave us a pride in our people that drove us on so our language will never die,” valedictorian Albert Phillips said.

The next generation

Those first graduates of Coqualeetza and Fraser Valley College’s Halq’eméylem instructor course went on to become cornerstones of Halq’eméylem teaching throughout the Fraser Valley—as did their children. New teachers began teaching the language at Chilliwack Landing Preschool the same year they graduated. Siyólewethet Roy Point’s granddaughter, Christine Seymour, is the current Indigenous Education principal for the Fraser Cascade School District.

The Coqualeetza Cultural Education Centre moved away from teaching teachers after that. But a revival came in 1994, when the Stó:lō Nation launched its Stó:lō Shxweli Halq’eméylem language program. Twenty students joined to learn how to create curriculum and teach Halq’eméylem. Mary Stewart was one of them.

“I always had it in me to learn my language,” she said. Stewart grew up on the Kwantlen reserve near Fort Langley, but never knew how her people had been deprived of their language until she was older. When she learned about what residential schools had done to eliminate Indigenous languages, she wanted to bring them back.

In 1994, she joined the first cohort of Stó:lō Shxweli students. Five years later, she was teaching pre-school and family programs in the language. By 2015, she had joined the University of the Fraser Valley as an assistant professor.

Mary Stewart is now the professor for graduate-level Halq’eméylem courses at UFV. 📸 Grace Kennedy

The first class was small, Stewart remembered. Smaller than she had hoped. “I wanted to have a waiting list for these classes, to get the enthusiasm going for people to take Halq’eméylem.”

Like the other Halq’eméylem teacher courses that came before, it took a while for more than a handful of students to complete the program. (When Kay went through UFV’s certificate program for Halq’eméylem, she was the only graduate.) But soon, the enthusiasm and growth became exponential.

This year, there are 25 students enrolled in the fall semester for UFV’s first year Halq’emeylem course. The university is continuing a partnership with the Kwantlen First Nation to teach Halq’emeylem 101 online. More students are signing up for more advanced language courses. But there are still challenges.

“We have to prepare for the future,” Stewart said. She said many Halq’eméylem educators are people she calls “senior teachers”—elders who have taken either formal or informal training, who are on the brink of retirement.

“We can’t just say, ‘I’m retiring.’ We need to have someone to mentor and prepare them, whoever is interested.”

And that is exactly what is happening.

Four years ago, fewer than 10% of the educators at Seabird Island Community School were able to teach in Halq’eméylem. Today, after a concerted effort by the teachers and school administration to put more people through UFV’s Halq’eméylem program, nearly two-thirds of all teachers are working in the language.

Today, UFV offers 13 Halq’eméylem courses, including seven that make up a brand new Halq’eméylem graduate diploma for students wanting to learn advanced techniques for language research and revival. The courses for the diploma are being offered for the first time this year.

Students in the Halq’eméylem graduate certificate program are working to expand their knowledge of the language and teach others in the future. Pictured: (Top, left to right) Karla Kay, Courtney Charlie, Emerald John, Delaina Stromquist, Dallas James, Charlene Thomas, and Dianna Kay. (Bottom, left to right) Mary Stewart, Brenda Pierre, Sophia Moreno, Diana Charlie and Beatrice Stewart. (Missing: Leanne Joe.) 📸 Grace Kennedy

Although the programs are geared towards teachers, the courses are open to all UFV students. It gives them the opportunity to learn the language and the worldview at its core in a scholastic setting that once sought to remove Indigenous perspectives entirely.

Teaching Halq’emeylem has “always been around achieving higher education within Western society. And it’s been about making space for us as Indigenous academics,” Kay said. “But it also belongs in our hearts.”

“The elders wanted us to keep the language within academia to make sure there’s a place for it,” she continued. “The way I see the language and the way I work with the language, I hope I’m doing the elders justice.”

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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