The First Nations community in Fredericton is hoping a new immersion program for aboriginal children and their parents will help preserve its language.

Imelda Perley has devoted her life to connecting Maliseet people to their culture. A university and high school teacher, Perley says the language and customs of the Maliseet people are vanishing as aboriginal people lose their connections with elders.

"I spent a lot of time, most of my childhood, with elders," Perley said Wednesday.

"Once they started to die, I started to realize that I'm not going to have anyone to speak to, so I'm going to have to recruit and make sure we have new speakers."

That's where the new off-reserve Under One Sky Head Start program, for children ages two to five, comes in.

The program, which saw its grand opening Wednesday, teaches the children Maliseet culture and language, helps them prepare for school and provides parenting workshops on family health.

The program is overseen by a coalition devoted to meeting the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical needs of aboriginal children.

Members of the coalition include the Fredericton Native Friendship Centre, the Mawiw Tribal Council, the Union of New Brunswick Indians Training Institute, the Aboriginal Women’s Council and the New Brunswick People’s Council.

Under One Sky Head Start is a total immersion experience held in a building in the heart of the Fredericton's downtown. Children are taught entirely in Maliseet. All the signs in the building are in Maliseet, as well as all the posters and teaching tools.

It's all a dream come true for Perley, who works in the centre, teaching the children of her former students.

Those former studentsinclude Alaina Paul, who learned Maliseet in kindergarten. Now Perley is teaching her daughter.

'She loves it'

"She knows how to smudge, the names of the month, colours, everything in Maliseet and she loves it," Paul said of her daughter. "She thinks it's great she can talk to her grandfather. I look at them and I think, 'I don't know what you're saying.' "

Despite her years in the classroom, Perley still gets a kick out of seeing the excitement in her students' eyes.

"In my language, to teach and to learn are the same word, so as I'm teaching them, I'm learning," Perley said. "I tell them: 'Thank you for teaching me how to teach you. Thank you for teaching me how to help you remember that word.' "

For now, the centre's classes are small, limited to six students. Perley hopes more funding from the provincial government will help make the expansion a reality sooner than later.