With 30 aboriginal languages close to extinction, the federal government has announced plans to quadruple funds for programs in British Columbia to revitalize those that can be saved and preserve those that will disappear possibly within the next five years.
The announcement comes shortly after Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated he was taking a personal interest in improving the way children are taught on reserves. In a recent letter to Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Mr. Harper proposed a Crown-first nations meeting with discussions of education reform at the top of the agenda.
The increased funds will go to programs such as recording native speakers and digitizing the results, creating instructional DVDs for schools and sponsoring language camps for youth.
Also, in an innovative effort to reach a new generation, educators hope to expand the number of ancestral languages available through mobile applications for the iTouch, iPhone and iPad. Last week, apps were launched for Halq'meylem, a language of the Sto:lo Nation in the Chilliwack area, and Sencoten, a language of the Saanich first nations outside Victoria.
"We all recognize if we do not know where we are from, we do not know where we are going," Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore said on Monday at the Museum of Anthropology as he announced the new funding arrangement. "Language is critical to the use and transmission of cultural identity," he said.
Mr. Moore added that he knows, as someone who went through French immersion classes, that language instruction does not really connect until it is used outside the classroom, in common parlance, in culture, media or music. "For many of these languages, that is just not the case, which is why it is such a struggle," Mr. Moore said in an interview.
The languages were lost over the past century as children from first nations families were placed in residential schools where they were not allowed to speak their own language. Most of the elders who remember the aboriginal languages have died. As communities continue lose all fluency in their language, they are under enormous pressure to document and archive the knowledge.
The funds will be provided under a national program that receives $5-million annually. A change in the formula for distribution of funds across the country will mean that B.C. will receive $834,000 next year, compared to about $232,000 this year. B.C. is the most linguistically diverse province in the country, with 60 per cent of the aboriginal languages in Canada.
Lorna Williams, head of the First Peoples' Heritage Language and Culture Council, said the funding is vital to the work that had to be done. "Many languages in B.C. have already gone. Many are in danger of not being spoken. Eight first nations language are severely endangered and 22 are nearly extinct," she said.
The distinct culture of the first nations will be hard to understand without the language to describe and provide meaning, she said. "Right now, it is really challenging to provide support to all the languages. This will ease that," she said.
Renée Sampson, a 27-year old member of the Saanich First Nation, said she started learning her ancestral language - Sencoten, pronounced senchofen - in 2004. "When I was growing up, it felt like I had a hole in my heart. I was always searching for something," she said in an interview. "Once I started learning the language, I started to feel really good about myself, it gave me a sense of identity."
Ms. Sampson was especially concerned about passing her aboriginal identity on to her three children. Pre-school and kindergarten immersion program would be a big help, she said. "If this programs goes there, that would be great."