People & Culture

How a B.C. First Nation is working to save their language from extinction

As the federal government prepares to move forward with its promised Indigenous language legislation, the Witsuwit’en Language and Culture Society is hoping for a language renaissance in Canada
  • Oct 31, 2017
  • 873 words
  • 4 minutes
Witsuwit'en language camp Expand Image

As recently as 100 years ago, Witsuwit’en people sang our cin (songs), recited our cin k’ikh (oral history) and welelh (dreamt) in our language. Many of our people were not only fluent in Witsuwit’en, but also spoke the languages of our neighbours and trading partners, including the diverse dialects of other Na-Dene speaking peoples to the east and the Sm’algyax to the west. As explorers, traders, missionaries and eventually settlers entered into Witsuwit’en territory in the late 1800s, our people incorporated Chinook trade jargon and English into our repertoire. Newcomers to our lands used translators or learned our language in order to communicate with us.

As the colonial population grew and the provinces and territories as we now know them took shape upon the land, our deep-rooted connection to our homelands came to be seen as an obstacle to nation-building. Our borders, which once followed watersheds and ridgelines, were redrawn as grids and plots to be purchased. Our places were renamed and our children taken in an effort to erase our songs, stories, dreams and even our memories of life on the land.  

Today, after generations of assimilationist policies that have forced us to the edges of our traditional lands, our language — the core of our identity — has become critically endangered. Recent statistics compiled by the community have identified just 116 fluent Witsuwit’en speakers, most of whom are elderly. With every language keeper who passes into the spirit world, we lose an irreplaceable chapter of our history, culture and worldview. We predict that unless we act now, our language will be extinct within 10 to 20 years.  

As Witsuwit’en, we have strived to revitalize our language in spite of unrelenting oppression and extremely limited resources. Our elders have worked tirelessly to uphold their responsibility to teach younger generations to speak their mother tongue and maintain their identity as Witsuwit’en. We have produced grammar books, dictionaries, songbooks and flashcards, and have organized as many language classes as possible. Sadly, we have yet to produce even one fluent speaker in a land dominated by English.

The federal government has committed to enacting legislation to protect and promote Indigenous languages in Canada. A bill is expected to reach Parliament sometime in 2018. The Witsuwit’en Language and Culture Society is cautiously optimistic about what this could mean for revitalizing our language. Some feel that regardless of the approach, it will not be enough to save our language from extinction and help it to remain relevant in today’s fast-paced world. We believe, however, that a language renaissance is possible, not just for us, but for every person in this country. Meaningful language laws have the potential to create a Canada in which multilingualism is the norm.  

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Studies have shown that multilingualism is not only achievable given a proper framework and resources for language education, but also has potential long-term cognitive benefits for language learners. In Canada, we pride ourselves on our multicultural population, which is made up of the diverse Indigenous cultures of this land and settlers from around the globe. Language, as one of the most important aspects of Indigenous identity, can and should be embraced by all of us as we strive to realize the dream of reconciliation.

This language bill will be the first in Canadian history to be co-developed by Indigenous Peoples and the federal government. As such, it promises to be a piece of legislation free of the paternalistic character of past policies while still upholding the fiduciary duty of the Crown. It is a chance for today’s government to take responsibility for the recovery of our languages, which have nearly been bled dry by centuries of policies that ignored or sought to restrict our right to speak our own tongue. It is hoped that the provinces and territories will work collaboratively on this initiative to ensure that language programming is offered within the education system. We cannot wait any longer. An immediate, comprehensive and thoughtful approach is required if we are to save our languages from extinction.  

The Witsuwit’en Language and Culture Society is currently drafting a position paper to be considered in the process of developing the legislation. Our paper promotes a nationwide shift toward multilingualism and suggests promising methods that may help us, and proponents of other Indigenous languages, reach our goals of recreating a living language informed by the lands that birthed us. This strategy will require more than simply offering classes and translation services in our language; it must also address the psychological impacts of assimilation and systemic oppression that have made the loss of language diversity in our country a sad reality. Ultimately, a radical change of thinking about language retention and its importance is needed to lift up the cultures, history and rights of the First Peoples of this nation and allow a new relationship to take shape.

Awet’za (That’s all for now).

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