British Columbia

'A tangible example of reconciliation': guardian of Skwomesh language applauds provincial language spending

SFU lecturer Dustin Rivers — who also uses the name Khelsilem — says additional funding for Indigenous language revitalization is an important investment being made by the B.C. NDP.

Khelsilem says Indigenous language funding is a step in the right direction

In 2016, Khelsilem (Dustin Rivers) launched a language immersion program at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., that teaches Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim or in English, the Skwomesh language. (Blaire Russell)

Of the many funding initiatives outlined in the B.C. NDP budget speech, spending for Indigenous communities is the one that most excites Dustin Rivers, also known by his Skwomesh name, Khelsilem.

Khelsilem is a councillor with the Squamish First Nation and a lecturer in Indigenous Languages at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby.

He is also the man behind a language immersion program offered by SFU that teaches Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim (the 7 represents a glottal stop or a slight pause) — or in English, the Skwomesh language.

"This kind of funding is a real tangible example of reconciliation in my opinion," said Khelsilem during CBC's On the Coast.

"The government is committing to reversing the impact of residential schools and colonization with a serious investment in Indigenous languages."

Provincial Finance Minister Carole James' budget speech included funding promises of $50 million for Indigenous language revitalization and $6 million over three years for aboriginal friendship centres.

34 distinct languages

There are 34 distinct Indigenous languages spoken in B.C. and also almost twice as many dialects. Khelsilem acknowledged that revitalizing all of them is a monumental task, one that falls to both families and the government.

He said parents have to foster a curiosity in their children to learn endangered languages, but governments need to reconcile historical policies that suppressed their use.

Khelsilem learned Skwomesh as an adult, working with fluent speakers in the Squamish Nation whose traditional territory runs from Greater Vancouver northwestward up Howe Sound. He's dedicated his career to studying it ever since.

His adult immersion class has 15 students who do approximately 900 hours of immersion over the course of eight months. Applicants to the class are prioritized if they are of Squamish heritage.

Since launching the program two years ago, Khelsilem has become a steward of Skwomesh.

"For me it's really about identity, it's really about sense of belonging, it's really about a sense of community," said Khelsilem.

He said by learning the language, he can now draw from a wealth of oral tradition and knowledge that is only accessible through spoken Skwomesh. That accessibility is something he wants to pass on to his students.

Currently, only about six per cent of fluent Skwomesh speakers are under 45, and Khelsilem hopes the new funding will increase that number.

He said language is a way to communicate, but also a symbol of identity that fosters social cohesion and brings communities together. 

"When we're talking about nation rebuilding ... being together, being united, being a community or being a nation really can make the difference on how much can get done."

With files from On the Coast