With a machete, George Seymour carved a series of lines near the base of an old cedar tree, then pried up a section of bark. With a strong tug, a narrow strip peeled away. His primary school students exclaimed with delight as the four-metre-long section landed on the ground.
Mr. Seymour is an elder, a carver and one of a small pool of fluent speakers of Hul’q’umi’num’, one of the Coast Salish languages of southwestern Canada and the northwestern United States.
Pupils from Qwam Qwum Stuwixwulh School proudly carried this prize back to the school grounds, where they are learning to prepare and weave the cedar. A language lesson from Mr. Seymour was gently entwined in the exercise.
The school, nestled in a forest, is on reserve land of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, one of the largest First Nations by population in British Columbia. The community’s prosperity has trailed well behind that of its non-Indigenous neighbours in south Nanaimo, but that is changing now.
Snuneymuxw has struck new partnerships with industry, and last week its Chief, Mike Wyse, signed a deal with a private developer to return an ancient village site to the nation.
Mr. Wyse said his community is working to reclaim its land and restore its place within its traditional territory. The goal is to bring the nation’s people home. Only one-third of Snuneymuxw’s 1,700 members live on reserve.
“We are prioritizing helping our people return to Snuneymuxw, and that means ensuring we have land, affordable housing and infrastructure that meets the needs of our growing nation,” Mr. Wyse said at a community ceremony to mark the land deal. “We are working so that more of our people can live here and thrive, as the ancestors intended.”
In March, a new Marriott hotel opened in Nanaimo, in partnership with Snuneymuxw. The nation is also part of a consortium launching a passenger ferry service between Nanaimo and Vancouver this summer. The community has opened a new gas bar and retail cannabis store. Mr. Wyse said these kinds of business deals are part of the modern era of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, which he described as an era of shared prosperity.
The nation’s ventures are driven by a pursuit of land and education.
The village site that is now being returned to the Snuneymuxw was taken from them 169 years ago. It sits on 41 hectares of riverfront property, most recently controlled by a developer called Seacliff Properties.
Under a deal with Seacliff announced on May 17, the nation gets that land back and also has an option to buy another 60 hectares, which could be used to build much-needed housing. In exchange, Seacliff gets support from the nation for a proposed large-scale housing project adjacent to the reserve. (The nation is currently battling another development company that is seeking to build on top of another village site.)
The school, built on the reserve four years ago, is at the heart of the Snuneymuxw’s ambitions. The arrangement behind it is an unusual one.
It is co-managed with the local public school authority, delivers the provincial curriculum, has the standard B.C. public school class sizes and gets the same per-capita student funding. It is open to any children from kindergarten age to Grade 7 in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district, and 40 per cent of its students are not Snuneymuxw.
The nation provides the school with supplementary funding to pay for extra education assistants, additional literacy resources and a hot meal program served by a chef from the community. Traditional items on the menu are provided by the nation’s hunters.
Mr. Seymour thought he would have retired by now, but at age 69 his language skills are in demand. Teaching wasn’t a vocation in which he expected to find himself.
His father attended residential school and did not instill a love of education in him. “Before, I didn’t want anything to do with the culture and the language,” Mr. Seymour said.
A persistent principal from elsewhere in the school district spent years reaching out, asking him to come and teach. “Realizing we are losing our language, I went back to school and got my masters,” he said. “It’s really important that our language be well on its way before I retire.”
While he is in the forest with his young proteges, Mr. Seymour teaches them about the land. He shows them how to identify a bear’s claw marks on a tree, and how the careful harvesting of cedar bark, at the right time of year, won’t kill the tree. “We show them what we can use in the forest,” he said. “There’s a lot of medicine in the forest.”
Qwam Qwum Stuwixwulh School’s principal, Sean Walsh, said the long-term objective is to turn the institution into a Hul’q’umi’num’ immersion school. But there aren’t enough fluent speakers yet to teach the language. He said he hopes Mr. Seymour will be joined by a second Hul’q’umi’num’ teacher next year. The school is already building a separate wing for language and culture programs.
“I’ll probably be retired before this is fully realized,” Mr. Walsh said.
The school has 120 students and its enrolment has grown each year since it opened. The main building is designed to mimic a traditional longhouse, but with large windows that bathe the rooms in natural light. A large portion of the teaching and support staff, including Mr. Walsh, are First Nations.
The catchment area in south Nanaimo is a challenging one, on- and off-reserve. Many of the students and their families move around frequently and have trouble getting enough to eat. Across the province there are gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in foundational skills assessments and graduation rates.
Mr. Walsh can’t say the school has boosted rates of literacy and numeracy yet, but he believes his students have a better chance at success than others. He knows something is working.
“I have kids here who want to know how to become a teacher,” he said.