British Columbia

As Indigenous language classes move online, students discover new ways to connect with elders

North Island College has moved most of its classes online due to COVID-19, which means students must connect virtually with their teachers and elders.

North Island College has moved most of its classes online due to COVID-19

Jeannine Lindsay, a student at North Island College, began learning Kwak'wala online this summer after the college adjusted the program due to COVID-19. (North Island College)

Learning a language over the internet may not sound ideal.

But for some students in North Island College's (NIC) Indigenous language program, the change has led to a unique, virtual relationship between them and local Indigenous elders. 

The designated "elder-in-residence" works with class instructors by answering student questions, offering context behind certain words and aiding with pronunciation. 

"We could send them a quick message asking what a word was, and they would respond instantly," said student Jeannine Lindsay in a press release from the college. 

Lindsay began learning Kwak'wala, the traditional language of the Kwakwakaʼwakw people, this summer after the Vancouver Island college moved most classes online due to COVID-19. 

From on land to online

This fall, students at NIC will continue to learn Kwak'wala from a distance, which is not how the course was designed.

"It's going to be challenging," said Sara Child, NIC's aboriginal education facilitator and the lead for language revitalization.

The program was intended to be land-based, Child told CBC's All Points West listeners Tuesday. But students can no longer connect with elders in person, meaning all communication has to be done over the computer. 

For instance, explained Child, if a student wants to learn about the traditional language associated with smoking fish, they might make a short video of the curing process and then share it with the elder, who can then explain the correct language that accompanies the act, as well as its significance.

Child said the school designed its Indigenous language program as a "revitalization measure" — a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call to "preserve, revitalize and strengthen" Aboriginal languages and cultures in Canada. 

"Our languages are dangling by a slender thread," said Child. 

North Island College offers students the opportunity to learn both Kwak'wala and Nuu-chah-nulth, the ancestral language of the Nuu-chah-nulth or Nootka people, whose traditional territory lies on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in and around Tahsis. 

The traditional territory of the Kwakwakaʼwakw extends from the northern reaches of Vancouver Island to the adjacent mainland coast, along the Queen Charlotte Strait. 

According to the 2016 census, 450 people in Canada can speak Kwak'wala, also known as Kwakiutl, while 380 respondents said they could speak Nuu-chah-nulth.

And many of those who are fluent are elderly, said Child. That's why the school developed the language program with younger people in mind.

Improved accessibility

Rory Annett, a NIC student who lives on Quadra Island, said transitioning to a distance learning model made the class more accessible to folks throughout the island.

"The people who are learning it are from Nanaimo, Victoria, Quadra Island, and Port Hardy, and are all able to join in on the same course and create a virtual community," he said in the college's media release. "If everyone had to attend physically, that just wouldn't be possible." 

NIC has four campuses located in Courtenay, Campbell River, Port Alberni and Port Hardy. While many classes will be administered solely online, some NIC courses will feature a mix of digital and campus components. 

Indigenous or otherwise, Child encourages everyone to try learning Kwak'wala.

"We want to encourage the language to be heard outside of our small communities because we know that any one individual community can't solely revitalize the language on their own," she said.

"We have to work together."

With files from All Points West