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Elizabeth Phillips is shown in a handout photo.HO-University of the Fraser Valley/The Canadian Press

She’s the last surviving fluent speaker of her Indigenous language, but Elizabeth Phillips says she’s more confident now than ever that her mother tongue will survive.

The 79-year-old Sto:lo Nation elder received an honorary degree Wednesday for her efforts to preserve the Halq’emeylem language of the Indigenous people who live in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley and Fraser Canyon areas.

“I do believe it is quite an honour,” said Phillips, who joked before the event that she was nervous and wanted to ask the University of the Fraser Valley if she “may back out now.”

Phillips, whose Sto:lo name is Siyamiyateliyout, was presented with an honorary doctor of letters degree at the university’s convocation ceremony. Her acceptance speech was in Halq’emeylem.

She said in an interview before the speech that she has lived and breathed the language all her life to the point where she held imaginary conversations with her parents in Halq’emeylem, pronounced hal-kah-me-lem, while at the Catholic-run St. Mary’s residential school in Mission from 1947 to 1954.

Phillips said the students were punished for speaking their Indigenous languages and many did not bring the language back to their homes once they left the school.

“I, more or less, I guess, thought in the language but didn’t speak it,” she said. “I was thinking about my parents. I don’t know if I was pretending to talk to them. I’m not sure, but I managed to keep my language.”

Phillips said her dedication to preserving the language started when she was in her early 30s and local leaders, knowing she spoke English and Halq’emeylem, approached her to join an elders circle to record and translate the Indigenous language.

“They got very concerned about the languages,” she said.

Phillips said 17 different Halq’emeylem dialects were recorded. Halq’emeylem was an oral language but the elders group managed to a create dictionary and writing system that helped ensure its preservation.

Phillips was able to focus on language development when she worked at the Coqualeetza Cultural Education Centre in Chilliwack during the 1980s. The centre is dedicated to the promoting, preserving and interpreting Sto:lo language, lifestyle, tradition and heritage.

A linguist has also recorded Phillips speaking her native tongue on film and as an ultrasound recording, allowing students to see how the muscles move inside the mouth for certain sounds.

Shirley Hardman, the university’s senior Indigenous affairs adviser, said Halq’emeylem was the first language Phillips learned as a child and she now is the last of the language’s totally fluent speakers. The recognition she received from the university is for a lifetime of dedication to ensuring the language will survive, said Hardman.

“It’s absolutely huge,” she said. “It acknowledges the importance of the language she dedicated her life to.”

Phillips said she regularly visits Halq’emeylem language classrooms at the university and area schools and often consults on the development of courses. Phillips said her daughter and grandson both teach the language and her great granddaughter recently spoke to her middle school class in Halq’emeylem.

“It couldn’t be going any better, I would say,” she said. “That makes my life worthwhile, I would say. All the work I’ve done.”

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