British Columbia

No new funding for Indigenous languages in B.C. leaves teachers scrambling for resources

Indigenous language teachers and activists say they are scrambling to keep language programs alive after learning their provincial funding was not renewed.

Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation confirms language revitalization funding was not renewed

Sʔímlaʔxʷ, also known as Michele Johnson, sits beside the late elder Sarah Peterson, left, who made all the curriculum at the Syilx Language House possible. Sʔímlaʔxʷ says Indigenous languages that are critically endangered need funding in order to bring adults and children to fluency. (Submitted by Sʔímlaʔxʷ Michele Johnson)

Indigenous language teachers across B.C. were alarmed to learn earlier this year there would be no renewal of funding from the provincial government.

Community members say they are now scrambling to come up with the resources to keep their languages alive.

"Time is really of the essence," said taaʔisumqa, also known as Dawn Foxcroft, a language coordinator at the Tseshaht Language House in Port Alberni, B.C.

"We need to do the work now," she said, noting that the majority of fluent speakers are now in their 70s.

Murray Rankin, B.C.'s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, confirmed that language revitalization funding was not renewed in 2021.

"We are currently exploring funding opportunities to continue to support this important work," he said.  

In 2018, the province invested $50 million over three years for Indigenous language revitalization for the nearly 200 First Nation communities in the province. The funding was not renewed and no new funding was provided in this year's budget.

"It was really, really disappointing, since the governments have a responsibility to our communities to support language revitalization," taaʔisumqa said.

Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize their traditional languages. The B.C. government passed UNDRIP into law in 2019.

'We don't have time to wait'

When Xakuubee, also known as Sarah Tom, heard that her community was not able to access funding to revitalize her Ditidaht language she was worried.

"We actually had a huge cutback this year and that brought some work hours down and hirings were cut back," she said.

There are only two language speakers in her Ditidaht community, so language revitalization is key.

 "We're keeping our language alive and it's an urgent matter," she said.

Dawn Foxcroft stand in front of the chart she uses to help people with their Nuu-chah-nulth pronunciation. (Josh Goodwill)

She said the funding is important to pay people to create curriculum, teach the language and create platforms where online learning can happen.

But lack of funding isn't the only barrier her community is facing when it comes to language learning and accessibility.

Ironically, like other Indigenous people in the province, Xakuubee was not able to register her community's Ditidaht language learning society in the Ditidaht language since the B.C. government's computer system doesn't recognize non-English or non-French text characters, many of which are seen in Indigenous languages.

The only way to get around the barrier is to anglicize an Indigenous word.

While B.C.'s Ministry of Citizens Services says it's working on a solution to the problem, it could take two or three years.

"We don't have time to wait for the government to catch up to us," Xakuubee said.

Her school has chosen to modify its Dididaht name and anglicize it by replacing a glottal stop with a number 7, so it reads ditidaqiic Cicqi7, instead of ditidaqiic Cicqiʔ, which the government computer system does not recognize. 

An Indigenous person can't register their child in an Indigenous name on their birth certificate in the province because of the same computer issue.

Language learning as a revolution

While there is hope of further funding, some say the language learning model the government supports just isn't enough.

"In order to teach our language and create fluency, we need to teach it as immersion," says Sʔím̓laʔxʷ, also known as Michele Johnson, who is the executive director, lead language activist and teacher at the Syilx Language House.

She believes Indigenous people must create their own schools since most elementary, secondary and even post-secondary schools rarely offer Indigenous immersion programs, raising Hawaii as an example. 

"They got five people fluent, and then those five people started a revolution, with their own daycares and schools," Sʔím̓laʔxʷ said.

"And now they have a really successful movement of people in Hawaii and a whole bunch of schools, with thousands of children now being raised in Hawaiian," she added. 

Sʔímlaʔxʷ says there needs to be a language revitalization revolution in order for communities to reach fluency. (Submitted by Sʔímlaʔxʷ Michele Johnson)

She calls it a revolution in language revitalization that requires three steps. She says the first step is funding and encouraging learners to go through a 1,600-hour language learning program.

The second step, she says, is surrounding language learners in full immersion environments in universities and high schools. 

And the third step, she says, is to create the political will so that institutions aspire to be taken over by fluent speakers.

"It's our responsibility to build that flame, to build that fire and carry it forward even further," Sʔím̓laʔxʷ said.

"The governments have a responsibility to our communities to support language revitalization." 


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.