Should all students learn First Nations languages?

Previously on The 180, we heard arguments for making sure Canadian students learn more than one additional language. This week we learn about a B.C. school district where all primary students will learn a local First Nations language, starting in the fall.
Roberta Edzerza says Sm'algyax is the language the land speaks in the Prince Rupert area, so it makes sense that all students learn it. (Facebook )

Sure, Canadian students can learn their other official language at school. Knowing un peu de français might help a bilingual culture, but what about learning something closer to home-- like a local First Nations language? That's what kindergarten to grade 4 students in Prince Rupert, B.C. will do. 

Starting in the fall, the city's school district is taking a language program that it offered in some schools, and making it mandatory for all primary students. The program will teach simple lessons in Sm'algyax, through song and play. 

Roberta Edzerza is the district's Aboriginal Education Principal. She belongs to the Tsimshian First Nation, which speaks Sm'algyax. She hopes the language program will enhance Prince Rupert's culture, and strengthen relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members of the community. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.    

Why do you believe that the students in your school board should learn a First Nations language?

This is Tsimshian territory, and Sm'algyax is the language of the territory. So, in our land, the land speaks Sm'algyax. And, with a high percentage of our population is Tsimshian people, 62% of our students are Aboriginal. People stay here and move here for the richness and diverse population, and the rich culture that's present here. 

You say it's the language the land speaks. Can you elaborate on that? 

With learning the language, you really have to learn off the land. Traditionally that's how we've learned our culture and we continue to do that, and learning our language, they go hand in hand with language and culture. And, having that richness and being able to learn that also in the school system, is just great. 

What's the reaction from the community? 

We get a lot of feedback from our non-Aboriginal families, people are really embracing that the schools are offering Sm'algyax language from kindergarten, and they're celebrating and supporting it, and it's a good thing for everybody. 

We have small pockets of people who aren't there yet, and we are hopeful that they will value the importance of Sm'algyax language and learning additional languages. 

How do you see Prince Rupert changing from initiatives like this? 

I see a decrease in racism and an increase in Aboriginal understanding. I see genuine partnerships, possibly an immersion Sm'algyax program. I see strengthened relationships.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.