British Columbia·Reconcile This

Reconciliation or appropriation: Should B.C.'s lieutenant governor be speaking Indigenous languages?

Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin is the representative of the Queen and of colonial power in British Columbia. So what does it mean when she decides to give speeches in Indigenous languages?

'I wanted to do something that showed respect,' Janet Austin says

Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin in her office at Government House in Victoria, where she has been learning to speak local Indigenous languages. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Inside what was once the headquarters of the colony of British Columbia, the current lieutenant governor is practising speaking the Indigenous languages that colonial powers once tried to eradicate.

Janet Austin, the province's 30th lieutenant governor, says learning SENĆOŦEN, the language of the W̱SÁNEĆ people from southern Vancouver Island, is part of an effort to do more than recite a territorial acknowledgement at the start of an event or speech.

"I do have the opportunity to bring profile to certain themes that I would like to champion and hopefully leave as a legacy in my term," Austin said during an interview at Government House, her residence in Victoria.

In 2018 there were less than 10 fluent  SENĆOŦEN speakers.

"I wanted to do something that showed respect and is hopefully role-modelling the importance of, and revitalization and retention of, Indigenous language and culture," she explained.

But Austin was hesitant and broached the project carefully. Given the colonial history of her role as the Queen's representative in B.C., she wasn't sure how learning an Indigenous language would be received.

"Is this something that would be viewed positively? Might someone think it's cultural appropriation?" she wondered.

So Austin reached out to elder Lorna Williams, a friend and associate professor emeritus of Indigenous education at the University of Victoria, to get her blessing. 

Lorna Williams, left, and Joe Seward, right, are guiding Austin in her language studies.

'It's not appropriation'

Williams supported the plan, but made clear they had to do more than learn how to make a territorial acknowledgement. 

"What I heard was that people were making acknowledgements, but it just became a patter, it didn't have a sense  that acknowledged the land, and our languages are of the land," Williams said.

"It's not appropriation. She's not taking away, she's honouring," said Williams.

Austin has been learning the SENĆOŦEN language for about three months and when she is giving a bill royal assent she speaks it as much as she can.

Watch Janet Austin speak SENĆOŦEN at the B.C. Legislature:

Janet Austin, the province's 30th Lieutenant Governor speaks SENĆOŦEN, the language of the W̱SÁNEĆ while giving a bill royal assent in the legislature. 0:44

She is being taught by Joe Seward of the Tsartlip First Nation, who is fluent in the language.

Seward said Indigenous languages have strong ties to the land and learning the language also helps people understand that connection.

"It's really good to bring our language back to life, and sharing a little bit of our language to help give an understanding of how we think and how we feel," said Seward.

Land, language intertwined

Musqueam spoken-word artist Christie Charles, who speaks Halkomelem — a Coast Salish language spoken by various First Nations — agreed with Seward that land and language are intertwined in Indigenous culture. 

She voiced her concern about learning Indigenous languages outside of the community they are spoken in.

"I learned our language through feeling it, seeing it, watching it and connecting to it ... it's just something that is in our genetic memory," said Charles. "When it is taught in a classroom in an academic way, it is not as connected," Charles said.

But she commended Austin's efforts and said it is important for non-Indigenous people to learn, especially for someone in a high-level government role during this time of reconciliation.

"I think it's very important for the time that we're living in," said Charles.

Austin plans to expand her studies in Indigenous languages beyond SENĆOŦEN during her five-year tenure as lieutenant governor.

To hear Austin practise her Indigenous language skills, click on the audio below to hear CBC reporter Angela Sterritt's column Reconcile This on CBC's The Early Edition:

Columnist Angela Sterritt explains why it can be tricky when non-indigenous people learn a language that was once sought to be eliminated. 9:51

With files from The Early Edition