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British Columbia Indigenous language teacher says keeping his traditional language alive has not been easy

Mentor and teacher David Underwood talks about the heritage language known as SENCOTEN as his mother Linda Elliott, centre, teaches apprentice Rita Morris during a session at the Saanich Adult Education Centre on the Tsartlip reserve near Brentwood Bay, B.C.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

David Underwood always wanted to be an artist. He loved painting, sculpture and photography, and that is where he saw his career going. Teaching was never the plan.

Mr. Underwood, 38, whose ancestral name is PENAC, lives on the STAUTW or Tsawout First Nation reserve, on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island. He was born and raised in WSANEC Saanich territory, where the traditional language is the Straits Salish language SENCOTEN.

Mr. Underwood’s mother, Linda Elliott, is a second-language SENCOTEN speaker. His grandmother, Beatrice Elliott, was a residential-school survivor, and did not speak the language to Linda until later in life.

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“The parents wouldn’t speak to their children in the language. There was always a fear that their children would be apprehended,” Mr. Underwood said.

Mr. Underwood said this influenced his decision to learn the SENCOTEN language. “I always had a feeling of responsibility to it.”

As mother-tongue speakers became more uncommon and proficient second-language speakers edged toward retirement, he believed he had a duty to his people to teach SENCOTEN, helping to ensure the language’s future.

Now, Mr. Underwood teaches SENCOTEN for a University of Victoria and WSANEC School Board partnership program at the Saanich Adult Education Centre in Brentwood Bay on the Tsartlip First Nation reserve, 15 kilometres north of Victoria.

Mr. Underwood is part of a growing number of people pushing for Indigenous-language revitalization. The number of people in Canada learning an Indigenous language as a second language is growing, according to a recent Statistics Canada study.

The study, based on 2016 census data, found that in 2016, nearly 264,000 people reported they could speak an Indigenous language well enough to conduct a conversation.

Twenty-six per cent of all Indigenous-language speakers had learned it as a second language – up from 18 per cent in 1996.

“It’s a very positive situation overall for sure,” said Aliana Parker, language-programs manager at First Peoples’ Cultural Council in Brentwood Bay.

“I think this speaks to some of the amazing work that is being done in British Columbia for language revitalization.”

First Peoples’ Cultural Council, a First Nations-run support organization, provides financing and resources for language-revitalization projects, aiming to create new fluent speakers through immersion and mentor-apprentice programs.

Among the school board’s mentor-apprentice program pairings are teachers who want to improve their language skills with SENCOTEN-speaking elders, and UVIC language-diploma students with immersion teachers in the classroom.

“Knowing how to speak one’s Indigenous language is a human right,” Ms. Parker said. “Languages connect individuals to their land and history – to their ancestors and to their culture.”

The WSANEC School Board receives support from the Cultural Council. The elementary school, LAU WELNEW Tribal School, provides a SENCOTEN immersion program from preschool to Grade 5.

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“They have built up a cohort of young people who have learned the language and become fluent enough to deliver immersion programming,” Ms. Parker said.

Tye Swallow, a WSANEC administrator who works with the SENCOTEN language-revitalization team, says when the immersion program began in 2013, there were only eight students. That has changed.

“Every year it grows,” Mr. Swallow said. “Right now we have 91 students in our immersion program.”

Mr. Swallow anticipates that within the next year more than half of the elementary students will be in the immersion program.

SENCOTEN is spoken outside the classroom as well. Coast Salish people testified, prayed and expressed their connection to the WSANEC land at recent National Energy Board hearings on the Trans Mountain Expansion Project reconsideration – singing ceremonial songs entirely in SENCOTEN.

Mr. Underwood’s eight-year-old daughter is in the immersion program at the LAU WELNEW Tribal School. He has spoken to her nearly entirely in SENCOTEN since her birth.

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“My first language is English. For me that’s a sad reality … When I was first interacting with [my daughter], I had to really do this emotional shift towards SENCOTEN. I really wanted to invest myself in the language I was giving to her.”

Mr. Underwood says that expressing himself genuinely to his daughter in SENCOTEN at home is extremely important.

“To me, the bottom line with language revitalization is that it’s a place we want to get to – to be able to converse with each other.”

The Statistics Canada study found that home-use of Indigenous languages is increasing for second-language speakers as well as mother tongue speakers.

“That seems to indicate to some extent that second-language use is not simply a side thing, but is part of everyday life,” said Thomas Anderson, an analyst with the social and Aboriginal statistics division of Statistics Canada, and the author of the study.

While the number of second-language learners is on the rise, the number of people who learned an Indigenous language as a first language in childhood, and still understand and speak it today, dropped one percentage point, according to the study.

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The province of British Columbia has committed $50-million toward First Nations language revitalization. First Peoples’ Cultural Council is administering these funds over the next three years.

The money will go toward language training, documentation and strategic language planning, Ms. Parker said.

“Language revitalization is not something that happens overnight. It will take a long-term sustained effort from both levels of government as well as all Canadians who can raise awareness and provide support for these issues and the work that is being done,” Ms. Parker said.

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