The Monday evening community Sm’algyax language class at Charles Hays Secondary School. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)

Part III: Saving an Indigenous language by teaching adults and creating an app

A multimedia series with videos and photos from a community Sm’algyax class on B.C.’s North Coast

“I didn’t know what Christmas was,” Alex Campbell began, and for the next 15 minutes the room fell silent for story time.

The 82-year-old hereditary chief from Lax Kw’alaams teaches high school and elementary school students by day and adults on Monday nights. For many, his stories are the most anticipated part of the class.

This particular story explored Mr. Campbell’s childhood growing up at Inverness Cannery in Port Edward, and his first memory of Christmas when he was only five years old. He helped his father decorate their tree with real candles, and his first Christmas present was a pair of shoes.

He recalled what his life was like on the North Coast during the Second World War, when families purchased sugar, milk and coffee with food coupons, and when as a young boy he witnessed his Japanese friends being taken away “just like the residential school. Took them away and they never came back.”

Residential school legacy

Residential schools had existed for decades by the time the federal government amended the Indian Act in 1920 to enforce every Status Indian child to attend a residential school or day school. While at school, Indigenous children were not allowed to speak their language, only English or French. By the 1950s, the government began to withdraw from the residential school system after realizing the harmful affect of taking children away from their families. However, the last residential school in Canada didn’t close until 1996.

The consequences of attempted assimilation can still be felt in communities, including places such as Prince Rupert where Aboriginal people represent 28 per cent of the population, according to the 2016 Statistics Canada census.

“The fragile state of almost all Aboriginal languages in Canada is a damaging legacy of residential schools. Although the schools contributed greatly to the decline, so too did the federal day schools and public schools, which made no room for Aboriginal languages or cultural expression,” concluded the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

“Our language is starting to disappear. Not very many people can really come out and teach the language or use the language for some reason,” Mr. Campbell said in response to why he started the Monday night adult language class.

Hereditary chief and Sm’algyax teacher, Alex Campbell, plays Christmas songs at the community language class on Monday night. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)

The evening community class led by Mr. Campbell and Donna McNeil-Clark at Charles Hays Secondary School has been running for three years. There is another adult class at the Prince Rupert Middle School on Tuesday evenings.

“I noticed we’re not reaching the young people, the young generation, so I thought I’d better try and fit in an adult class as well. I know it doesn’t work very well if you have it restricted to First Nations only, I thought this year would be different,” Mr. Campbell said.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission addressed this as well: “The neglect of Aboriginal languages affects all Canadians. It impedes the ability of non-Aboriginal Canadians to understand and to appreciate the linguistic and cultural diversity that is part of a shared history,” as stated in Volume 5 on “The Legacy.”

The evening adult learning lessons may be held at schools, but the teachers who run the classes are volunteering their time, determined to rebuild and revive their language.

The App

To rebuild Tsimshian language beyond the classroom, the Sm’algyax language authority is currently creating an app to launch in the new year.

Work on the app began approximately two years ago, with grant funding and IT support from Simon Fraser University.

“It’s a long process. We have to be very patient and understanding and it’s a team approach,” Roberta Edzerza, district principal for Aboriginal Education at Wap Sigatgyet, the “House of Building Strength”.

Lessons that go with the app have been developed by Sm’algyax fluent speakers, teachers, linguists, project managers, helping teachers and the district principal for Aboriginal Education.

The app will provide an introduction to Sm’algyax, starting with introductions, as well as a number of lessons. Avatars have been created for the speakers, and there will be video with sound and talking bubbles that will allow the user to pull down menus for grammar rules.

“We have a Grade 2 student speaking in there and its very cute where she’s talking with her mom in Sm’algyax and then we have teachers speaking in Sm’algyax to our elders speaking in Sm’algyax. It’s going to be a wonderful app offered for free to the community,” Edzerza said.

Simon Fraser University has worked on other apps for First Nations groups to keep the languages alive. In 2016, an app was launched for the Shuswap Nation, and another app is currently being developed for the Haida language as well.

Roberta Edzerza, district principal for Aboriginal Education, holds up Sm’algyax signs that will be installed in schools across the region. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)

Sm’algyax Signage

The Aboriginal department has also focused on adding the Indigenous language to newsletters, websites and they’re in the process of adding signage to schools.

The gender neutral washrooms introduced in September included the Sm’algyax wording Tsuusgm Tsa Wap for “washroom”. Signs are being added to each school in the district reading Ła Bała Sgan or “welcome” and wap liitsx for “library”.

“Getting the language out there to be seen and heard by all, I think, really helps with acknowledgment and respect and grounds us to our territory. This is the language of the territory. Visitors can come and appreciate that. It reduces racism, it opens up cultural awareness and sensitivity and we want to increase community involvement,” Ms. Edzerza said.

READ MORE: Prince Rupert opens a gender-neutral washroom in every school

Increasing adult language

With the Sm’algyax second language program growing and evolving in the school district, the next steps are increasing adult learning.

“We’re hoping that this community will use the app so they can help save the language. We’re not just teaching Sm’algyax — we’re trying to save the language,” Ms. McNeil-Clark said.

The app will be available to everyone once it’s ready, and adults can continue to join in on either or both community classes offered at night.

Lax Kw’alaams member Glenn Reece started learning the language 16 years ago. He said because of residential schools his mother didn’t have the language, so he didn’t have it either.

“As a teenager my dad tried to teach us and at that point we were too busy doing whatever other than sitting down and trying to learn a language that I thought was kind of crazy. But now I know it’s not crazy — it’s too important to lose,” Reece said.

What he loves most about the community classes is listening to the stories.

“I love listening to the stories. I wish I could understand them all but one day that’s to be able to understand what they’re all saying,” he said.

When asked why the stories are so important he responded: “That’s our history, that’s us, who we are, it’s important.”

PART 1: How Prince Rupert schools teach Indigenous language to hundreds of students

PART 2: Indigenous language and culture go hand in hand in Prince Rupert classrooms 

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