Haida elder Jiixa (Gladys Vandal) is presented with an honorary doctorate by Ralph Nilson, VIU president and vice-chancellor, left, and Louise Mandell, VIU chancellor, at the university’s convocation ceremony Monday. (CHRIS BUSH/Black Press Media)

Haida ‘wisdom-keepers’ receive university’s highest honours

Nine Haida elders presented with honourary doctorates for preserving Haida language and culture

Participants in a project now 21 years old to preserve and help the Haida language thrive have been recognized by the Nanaimo-based Vancouver Island University (VIU).

Nine elders who form the core of the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP), and representing approximately half of the Skidegate Haida language’s fluent speakers, were each conferred with an honourary Doctor of Laws degree at convocation ceremonies held June 3.

“Indigenous languages are disappearing at an alarming rate,” Louise Mandell, VIU chancellor, said in her convocation address. “Every few weeks an elder dies, with an ancient tongue taken to the spirit world. The sum total of those ideas and dreams and myths and beliefs and thoughts, all that intellectual wealth lost. Canada, one of the worst situations, where 40 to 45 indigenous languages are disappearing. In Canada, Indigenous people are the only ones who can speak the language born of this land.”

Ildagwaay (Beatrice Harley), Taalgyaa’adad (Betty Richardson), Jiixa (Gladys Vandal), SGaanajaadsk’yaagaxiigangs (Kathleen Clara Hans), Niis Waan (Harvey Williams), Sing.giduu (Laura Jormanainen), GwaaGanad (Diane Brown), Yang K’aalas (Grace Velma Jones), Gaayinguuhlas (Roy Charles Jones) were all on stage, receiving their degrees from VIU president Ralph Nilson and university chancellor Louise Mandell.

They dedicated more than 20 years to preserving and revitalizing their language and culture through the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program, which they created in 1998.

The elders, whose average age is 84, lived through the time of the residential school system and are descendants of a people who numbered more than 13,000 prior to European contact that through war, disease and government policies, dwindled to just 588 souls, and represent the fight to preserve First Nations culture and languages, which are disappearing worldwide.

The group has generated more than 200 CD-ROMs, compiled 2,000 words and 500 phrases readily made available through an app, prepared 130 lesson plans and 80 children’s books and have taken part in a mapping project with more than 2,200 place names in the HIGaagida Zaayyda Kil language.

Their largest work to date is compiling “The Glossary” containing more than 26,000 Haida words.

READ MORE: Will the Village of Queen Charlotte change its name?

Speaking last week, university president Ralph Nilson called the work of the nine within SHIP a remarkable achievement.

“It is really something we would all aspire to,” he said of the goal of preserving and enhancing an Indigenous language.

The work of the nine is also being looked at by VIU with a view someday to taking an active role in Indigenous language preservation and enhancement, Nilson added.

Nilson said the honourary degrees recognize 2019 being the United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages and the university’s own work toward reconciliation.

The university has residents from communities up and down the coast among its student body, something Nilson expects to increase as it advances its reconciliation goal.

VIU became aware of SHIP through Kevin Borserio, a student at a predecessor institution to VIU, who moved to Haida Gwaii to teach physical education.

“And then he became involved in SHIP,” said Nilson of Borserio who is now its coordinator.

What followed was a nomination of the Skidegate Haida language teachers and program to a VIU committee, which decides who should receive honourary degrees each year.

“That all nine were there to receive their degrees was quite exceptional,” said Nilson.

READ MORE: Haida language stars in Edge of the Knife


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Haida elder Niis Waan (Harvey Williams) is presented with an honorary doctorate by Ralph Nilson, VIU president and vice-chancellor, left, and Louise Mandell, VIU chancellor, at the university’s convocation ceremony Monday. (CHRIS BUSH/Black Press Media)

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