Skip to main content

A woman walks past a bilingual street sign with both English and the traditional language of the Musqueam First Nation, at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. Signs on nine major campus streets are being replaced with the bilingual signs. UBC's Point Grey Campus is located on their traditional territory.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

From the University of British Columbia’s West Mall, visitors can catch a glimpse of the region’s North Shore Mountains between the treetops.

On a new bilingual street sign, West Mall is labelled “facing the mountains” in the traditional language of the Musqueam First Nation, whose traditional territory includes the campus.

The language is featured alongside English on 54 bilingual street signs recently installed on the campus. The school consulted Musqueam First Nation elders and language experts to pick street names that reflect the way Indigenous people traditionally have thought about direction.

“Our directions are upriver or against the current, downriver or with the current, down towards the waterfront, and away from the waterfront,” Musqueam elder Larry Grant said on Wednesday at an event to unveil the street signs.

“Those are the Indigenous ways of directionality that were universal around the world until Marco Polo found out the Chinese had a magnetic compass. Then there was north, east, south and west.”

The East Mall was given a name meaning “facing inland.“ Crescent Road’s other name translates to “going around the outside perimeter of a building.“

In all, nine streets were accorded names in the Indigenous language, all written with characters from the North American Phonetic Alphabet, which was developed to represent sounds in unwritten languages.

UBC has made nine of the campus street signs bilingual in English and Halkomelem, the traditional language of the Musqueam people who considered the site of the university a place of learning long before it was built.

The language is one of three dialects of Halkomelem, the Coast Salish language traditionally spoken across the Lower Mainland and the east coast of Vancouver Island. It features 36 consonants, some found only in a handful of languages across the world.

“It might be a little bit difficult at the moment, but once you understand the writing system, the orthography, then it’s quite simple to do the pronunciation,” said Mr. Grant, who grew up speaking the language and now teaches it as an adjunct professor in UBC’s First Nations and endangered languages program.

There are plans to put QR codes beneath all the signs to give passersby the chance to hear the pronunciations. A guide to the language’s orthography is also available on the Musqueam Indian Band website.

The Musqueam viewed the area as a place of learning long before the university was built.

“I think this project is the perfect way to connect me to this space,” Nora Stogan, a Musqueam student in the Indigenous teacher education program, said in an emotional speech. “It’s a small step toward reclaiming this space that my ancestors once walked on.

“This space here in particular was a space of learning. Today I am learning here.”

In 2010, UBC’s Okanagan Campus put up bilingual signs in English and Nsyilxcen – the Indigenous language of the Okanagan Nation.

“We should do it across Canada, really,” UBC president Santa Ono said after the event.

“It’s incredibly unique … It’s easy to do and the process of working on the signs together is something that forms a bridge and a connection between the First Nations community and the university.”

Other parts of B.C. also have multilingual signage. Road signs in Squamish, Lil’wat and English were installed on the Sea-to-Sky Highway between Whistler and Vancouver before the 2010 Olympics.

More recently, road signs in Tsilhqot’in were erected along Highway 20 in Tsilhqot’in First Nation territory.