How one woman is working to revive the Fraser Valley’s local language

Fraser Cascade's new Indigenous education principal Christine Seymour shares her experience as a Halq’eméylem teacher, and what she hopes for her new role

By Grace Kennedy | September 29, 2021 |6:05 am

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Christine Seymour remembers her father driving to and from his classes at UBC when she was a child. He drove a Volkswagen with a hole in the floor of the driver’s seat, and had to put his foot down on rainy days in order to brake completely.

“My mom used to say, ‘We were starving students trying to get our education,’” Seymour remembered. It wasn’t easy for Indigenous students then: in her father’s time at UBC, there were 12 Indigenous people on campus. By 2020, when Seymour completed her Masters in Educational Leadership and Administration, there were hundreds.

“When I struggled, I would think about him being out there at school, during a time when there was not as much support as there is today for Indigenous students,” Seymour said. Seymour’s father, Steven Point, persevered and became BC’s 28th Lieutenant Governor and UBC’s 19th Chancellor. Seymour persevered also, and is now the Fraser Cascade School District’s new Indigenous Education Principal, after years as a Halq’eméylem teacher in Abbotsford and Chilliwack.

It wasn’t Seymour’s plan to teach Halq’eméylem, but she has spent the bulk of her career sharing her language with students. (Seymour has direct ties to the Sts’ailes, Scowlitz, and Sq’ewqeyl First Nations, with links to the Ts’elxwéyeqw and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, or Musqueam, territory.) Canada was once home to well over 50 Indigenous languages. But today, only three are spoken fluently by many. There is only one fluent speaker of Halq’eméylem, and the language is listed as endangered. “It’s become a passion of mine to grow the language and revitalize the language,” she told The Current. We sat down with Seymour to chat with her about her career, Indigenous student success, and what she hopes to see happen in her new district.

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FVC: You said the moment you opened your classroom doors, you started teaching language. Why was that so important for you to do?

Seymour: It actually wasn’t, it was just the opportunity was there and I applied… When I first took on the teaching job, and I knew I was going to be teaching language, I remember going into my parents office… and I pulled a binder off of one of the shelves. And when I opened it, it was a binder from my late grandfather, Roy Point, his name was Siyolewethet. It was his book. And I never realized that my grandfather took those [Halq’eméylem] classes, nevermind took them, but during a time that he should have been retired. He took some later in his life, and how brave that was of him.

Because school was, for me, not the most comfortable endeavor. And I was so proud of my grandfather that he did that. And he did it later in life. I saw his notes, handwritten notes—I still have that binder with me here… But his hand notes on how to teach the language, his hand notes on vocabulary lists and classroom words. And so I opened that book, and I thought, ‘No, this must be meant to be on my plan.’ I thought I was going to teach biology but I’ve always taught language from the very beginning.

My grandfather attended residential school, in Kuper Island, and growing up, I never heard him complain or talk about it. He’s such an amazing, amazing person. He always worked hard all his life, including in the language. I’ve seen videos of him talking about the language where it brings tears to his eyes because the number of speakers were decreasing. As we’re losing them, and it just makes me think about him and his work and what he did. He survived a time during the residential school era, when he wasn’t allowed to speak the language and he watched the language decrease and then, at the end of his life, he worked to save the language. So when I found that binder, I thought, ‘Well, this must be meant to be,’ and I took that word list and I started teaching the language. And I have been ever since.

FVC: So you’re kind of following in his legacy then.

Seymour. I hope so. [Pause] I hope so. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us yet… The loss that we see in language across Canada and in this territory is not only the loss in language. It’s not just a reflection of loss of language. It’s reflected in the loss of culture as well. So Indigenous people right now are working really hard to get back on our feet, but also to recover those important things that we’ve lost throughout over 100 years of the residential school system in Canada.

FVC: That almost answers my next question, which is: what you see your role is as an Indigenous education principal, and what are you going to be trying to do in this role?

Seymour: I just finished my master’s degree, and it was in leadership. And it was centered in Indigenous education through the University of British Columbia. I didn’t know that education could be transformational and what a privilege it was to learn until I went through that program. It was an example of Indigenous education.

One picture that stays with me, from my program there at UBC, was Dr. Linda Toohey from the New Zealand people there [Maori]. When she spoke about her culture, in New Zealand, she shared a picture of broken eggshells. And she said this is a representation of her culture today. She said ‘Now, if you had a picture of puzzle pieces, and you were going to go put it together, you might strategize and put the same edge shapes together or the colors… but when you look at the picture of the egg shells, you can’t really organize them or strategize the same way. Where do you begin?’ I really think that that doesn’t just represent who the New Zealand people are, after their colonization and history there. It represents the culture here for Indigenous people, and it represents our languages. So I think my role is to grow and to find out who I am as an Indigenous woman and reconnect to our ancestors’ ways and what they would have taught us. And to work to share that in the Fraser Cascade school system.

FVC: It’s interesting that you put it that way, because I think Balan Moorthy [Fraser-Cascade’s district superintendent] had said that they came to you after they were looking for a cultural leader and a school-based education leader. So it sounds like you’re bringing those two roles together.

Seymour: Yes, I hope so. I hope so, but [there’s] lots to learn, learning the lay of the land here and within the community. We’ve done quite a bit of work already here. [It] is amazing to witness some of the work they’ve done already to join the team, and hopefully I can contribute to the work that’s already been done here as well.

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FVC: Do you have an example of some of that work that stood out to you as you’re getting into your role?

Seymour: I’d like to get to know the support worker staff—the staff that we have in these schools as Truth and Reconciliation week is coming upon us—and support them in their work. Some people ask, ‘Who have the residential school systems affected?’ They’ve affected every Indigenous person in Canada and I’d like to work to support our staff that are out in our front lines so that they can work with our students and [so] they feel supported in their work so that our students are supported. I think that we all come from different walks of life, depending on your history, or the community you come from. So I’d like to support the staff in feeling like we can work to put some of that picture back together, and then share that with young people in the schools. I think about that egg shell picture, and I think sometimes you’d want to shake it up and move some away because some of it is completely lost, some of it is not there. We need to work to create a sense of teams that we can work together, creating goals around that. And sharing. I think that will naturally be shared with the young people as we work to create a sense of team for the staff that’s already here.

FVC: What is most needed to support students and Indigenous students as they go through their schooling journeys?

Seymour: Right now, it’s been mandated to Indigenize the curriculum, to implement Indigenous worldview into the curriculum. I think there’s already a lot of supports implemented in this system. We have staff. I remember when I was beginning my high school career, we had, I think, one [Indigenous education] teacher for the whole district, whereas now we have staff in every building supporting the students.

Throughout my studies, I studied trauma, I studied the brain. And everything ended up landing back on our culture, and our songs and our stories and the teachings that our ancestors would have left us. Even when it came to high healing practices for trauma, the answer came out as our culture, our songs and our dances, our meditative ways of healing. So I think that we can work to help incorporate or implement Indigenous, and ground our people in our Indigenous worldview and our culture and support staff and doing that as well.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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