British Columbia

Nisga'a language educator wins prestigious national teaching prize

Northern B.C. elementary school teacher, Dianna Rai, won a Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence Certificate of Achievement for her work teaching the Nisga'a language. Fewer than 500 people speak it fluently in Canada.

Dianna Rai is one of fewer than 500 people who speak Nisga'a fluently in Canada

Thousands of people, young and old, celebrate the Nisga'a Nation's lunar new year, known as Hoobiyee, at the PNE Forum in February 2018. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

When Northern B.C. elementary school teacher, Dianna Rai, sees her students outside of school, she says they never speak with her in English — always in Nisga'a.

It's no small feat. While it's estimated that fewer than 5, 500 people speak Nisga'a in Canada, there are only about 500 fluent speakers like the teacher from the Nisga'a village of Laxgalts'ap in the Nass Valley.

In early October, Rai's work with the students at Alvin A. McKay Elementary School was celebrated with a national teaching award.

The Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence Certificate of Achievement has been given out to exceptional elementary and secondary school teachers in all disciplines since 1994. Rai received it for her passionate advocacy for the Nisga'a language and culture

"It is amazing to be recognized," said Rai Monday in an interview on CBC's Daybreak South, where she shared some Nisga'a words and phrases with listeners.

'I thought everyone spoke Nisga'a'

Rai grew up with grandparents who spoke the language and said as a child, before learning about the impact of residential schools on her people, she had no idea the words she was learning were endangered.

"I just thought everyone spoke Nisga'a," she said.

According to the federal government, the language is at risk of extinction.

Dianna Rai, left, was awarded a Prime Minister award for excellence for her work. Rai is photographed here with Phylis Webstad, right, who created Orange Shirt Day to honour residential school survivors. (Facebook/Dianna Rai)

Rai is not only making sure the kids in her classroom learn the language, but embody it.

She uses total physical response strategies to help her students remember the words they are being taught.

For example, if Rai asks her classes to stand up, they get up, while also responding to her in the Nisga'a language.

Her students also use sign language, movement, songs and performance — all designed to engage their entire bodies to help memorize the vocabulary.

The award also recognized Rai for creating after-school language programs, teaching free evening high school classes, and encouraging young people to attend local feasts and ceremonies.

Outside the classroom

It's not just her school students benefiting from Rai's passion for her language and culture.

She was also involved in writing a Nisga'a language dictionary and common Nisga'a alphabet that she uses to help record and share Elders' knowledge.

Rai also volunteers with the Elders' Council and the Language Authority and brings Elders into the school to see her students' progress.

The Nisga'a village of Laxgalts'ap, where Dianna Rai teaches, is located on the Nass River estuary, approximately 150 kilometers north of Terrace. The population is less than 500. (

"Elders are moved to tears at school and village events to hear children speak and sing in Nisga'a," reads the statement announcing her win.

Rai also works with two assistants on digital language games for students and is helping those assistants become fluent in the language themselves.

Dianna Rai is a language educator at Alvin A. McKay Elementary School in the Nisga'a village of Laxgalts'ap. She was recently honoured with a Prime Minister award for excellence for her work. 7:31

With files from Daybreak South, Wawmeesh G. Hamilton