In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, First Nations parents and activists work to erase the legacy of residential schools and look to the future.
Reporter Amber Nasrulla spoke with MENEŦIYE Elliot, one of five teachers at ȽÁU,WELṈEW Elementary School in Brentwood Bay, B.C. Their job goes beyond literacy in the immersion and outdoor education program. They must also save SENĆOŦEN, an endangered language in which only a handful of elders are fluent. In the 1970s, MENEŦIYE’s grandfather, David Elliot, created its unique alphabet using capital letters. “I grew up worrying about my responsibility to the language,” says MENEŦIYE, a mother of two. She earned her B. Ed at the University of Victoria with assistance from the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, which also financially supports the school.
“I am grateful I could dedicate this time to learning the language and history so I could have the power and ability to pass it on.
“SENĆOŦEN is an ancient language and a highly endangered language. There are only a handful of people for whom it is their native tongue.
“The TRC has opened the eyes of the broad community and how important language is, because, for a long time our history was hushed and a secret and nobody wanted to talk about it or gain an understanding of more of our struggles and what it is going to take for us to heal.
“When we created the program we wanted to make sure the kids would be using the language and their vocabulary would grow all the time. Indoors and outdoors. Learning the language gives the students something to be proud of. And learning their connection to the land makes them stronger. The calendar that we teach our children is a 13-moon Saanich calendar and we base our curriculum on that.
“At 8:30 a.m., all of the immersion classes from kindergarten to Grade 2 go down to the longhouse together. We sing four different songs. We do a lot of praying related to our Saanich values. We give thanks to the ocean. We sing that we are thanking the creator. And we are thanking him for the land. We are thanking the salmon. We are thanking our homeland.
“Our new year happens in February and every new moon we change the song. Right now we are in sea state and it’s the end of the year. It’s the elder moon and next year we will sing a song about the New Year. As spring begins we will sing about bees. As summer arrives there are songs about salmon coming back to the straits. Another song honours our language and we promise that we are moving forward. A fourth song celebrates our language program.
“Because it’s a different alphabet there are challenges. By the end of kindergarten the kids need to know the names of the letters and the sounds that each makes. We have 38 letters in SENĆOŦEN. The alphabet looks like an English alphabet in capitals with dashes and slashes all over the place. There are three different As, for instance. We have different names for the symbols that go around the alphabet. By Grade 1 they are learning how to write words.
“We are on the same curriculum as public school, it’s just a different language. It’s also a brand new curriculum for us. As a teacher I can’t go to the teacher store and buy a massive amount of supplies. I go and get ideas and go back and build it. That’s another full-time job and it needs to be done. But the children listen and they are amazing.
“The little ones are able to understand the elders who are speaking SENĆOŦEN. That’s success to me. They are strong when we are hiking and they have connection to the land. That’s success to me.
“And now they have their language and they have something to hold on to. And that makes me proud.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has many goals, such as improving Indigenous lives through legal equity, supporting education and health programs, improving child welfare, and preserving Indigenous language, culture, and spiritual traditions.