British Columbia

In the Year of Indigenous Languages, why is an Indigenous student still being forced to take French?

Creighton Angus-Morrison is only in elementary school, but he is doing everything he can to learn his Indigenous language. However he, his mom and his school district have been unable to find a way for him to learn it remotely from his Burnaby school. He is being taught French instead.

12-year-old boy wants to learn his Sm'algyax mother tongue but is facing roadblocks

Creighton Angus-Morrison has been attempting to learn Sm'algyax by studying notes he takes while speaking to his great-grandfather over the phone. He and his mom have been working to find a way for him to learn his language at school with no luck. (Maggie Macpherson/CBC)

When 12-year-old Creighton Angus-Morrison told his mom he wanted to learn his Sm'algyax language, she thought it would be a no-brainer. 

The Tsimshian dialect is one of 17 Indigenous languages in B.C. for which the Ministry of Education has developed and approved curriculum. And the ministry's policy on language education clearly states that "all students, especially those of Aboriginal ancestry, should have opportunities to learn an Aboriginal language." 

But when it came to connecting Creighton — a Grade 7 student in Burnaby — with the Sm'algyax curriculum, things got complicated.

Creighton's mother, Danella Angus, discovered there were few supports and no formal process at Creighton's elementary school or at the district level to help her connect with a teacher and navigate the curriculum.

While 2019 was proclaimed the year of Indigenous languages by the United Nations, Creighton's experience highlights the difficulty that Indigenous students, particularly in urban centres, continue to face when trying to learn their family's language.

"It's been hard, hard to get the ball rolling," Angus said from their home in Burnaby.

"We went about it for the whole year last year from September, and this year they're forcing him to take French and he's not liking it."

The Ministry of Education said in an emailed statement to CBC that it is "committed to moving to full course offerings in Indigenous languages," but acknowledged the Indigenous languages policy is still a work in progress.

'I don't really want to learn French'

When he was in Grade 5, Creighton spent a year in Prince Rupert, immersed in his culture and learning his language from his great-grandfather — something he wanted to continue when he moved back to Burnaby the following year.

He says he doesn't have a connection to the French language but Sm'algyax connects him to his family, his land and his culture.

"I don't really want to learn French," he said. "I want to learn more of my language because when I went to school up north for that one year I learned a lot of new words and now I forgot it because of French."

The Ministry of Education says some locally developed Indigenous languages — like Sm'algyax — can fulfil the second language requirement for grades five through eight.

Danella Angus and her 12-year-old son Creighton Angus-Morrison are pictured outside their home in Burnaby. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Angus proposed that her son learn the language remotely from his great-grandfather Alex Campbell, who teaches Sm'algyax to students in Prince Rupert. 

The Burnaby School District was open to the idea, and Angus was hopeful. But she says although there was a will to help Creighton, his school couldn't seem to find a way to make it happen. 

Angus says she asked her grandfather to send his teaching materials to Burnaby, but he didn't have access to the official curriculum and was told only the school district in Prince Rupert could access and share it. The Burnaby School district says it reached out to Prince Rupert, but says it didn't hear back.   

In the end, Angus says the principal of Lakeview elementary told her it was not possible for her son to learn Sm'algyax in school and directed her to help Creighton learn French. 

In response to her concerns, the Burnaby School District sent CBC a written statement that said: "There's always been and remains a willingness to work with the family from both the school and the district. The Principal has and continues to express the same willingness."

'It really comes down to the how'

Brandon Curr, director of instruction for the Burnaby School District — who was the principal of Indigenous education  last year — admits it is a new and complex situation to have only one child in a school district wanting to learn a specific language remotely. 

"I think in this instance it demonstrates that we are still in the beginning stages of this and really we need to sit down with families and work through how do we make this happen," Curr said.

According to the Ministry of Education, if the Burnaby School District wanted to deliver Sm'algyax curriculum in their district, it would be the district's responsibility to reach out to the language speakers in Prince Rupert where the curriculum is housed to request access to it.

"Knowing that there is provincial curriculum for this language, it really comes down to the how," Curr said.

Technology is key

Technology coupled with distance education may need to play key roles. 

Kirsten Baker-Williams, director of First Nations language and culture at the First Nations Education Steering Committee, says educators are going to need to get creative in order to bring Indigenous languages into the classroom. She says technology will be at the forefront. (Angela Sterritt/CBC )

When Kirsten Baker-Williams, the director of First Nations language and culture at the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC), heard about a 12-year-old boy having trouble learning his language, it struck a chord. 

"Hurdles that this family has had to jump through, it's really impeding the movement forward of languages and if so many Indigenous people are living off their homelands, I think we're really losing a great opportunity here," she said.

Language revitalization in schools is in its infancy. Only last year was an agreement struck between the province and FNESC to get Indigenous languages in schools, but the bulk of that energy is focused on First Nations schools, rather than schools in urban centres.

Outside of Indigenous communities, things get tricky, especially when a student is striving to learn a language remotely, like Angus-Morrison. 

"People might be feeling overwhelmed to create a structure with so many different Indigenous languages but technology is playing key pieces of it," Baker-Williams said.

"Kudos to that boy for sticking to it because he's likely going to be a future language teacher or a language leader in some shape or form."



  • This story has been updated to include additional efforts made by the Burnaby School District.
    Dec 02, 2019 4:01 PM PT


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?