B.C. elder receives honorary degree for efforts to keep the Halq'emeylem language alive

Stó:lō Nation elder Elizabeth Phillips is the last surviving fluent speaker of Halq’eméylem. She is scheduled to receive an honorary degree Wednesday for her efforts to preserve the language.

Stó:lō Nation elder Elizabeth Phillips honoured by University of the Fraser Valley

Elizabeth Phillips is receiving an honorary degree Wednesday from the University of the Fraser Valley for her work to preserve the Halq’eméylem language. (University of the Fraser Valley)

She's the last surviving fluent speaker of her Indigenous language, but Elizabeth Phillips says she's more confident now than ever that her mother tongue will survive.

The 79-year-old Stó:lō Nation elder is scheduled to receive an honorary degree Wednesday for her efforts to preserve the Halq'eméylem language of the Indigenous people who live in British Columbia's Fraser Valley and Fraser Canyon areas.

"I do believe it is quite an honour," said Phillips, who joked she was nervous about the ceremony and wanted to ask the University of the Fraser Valley if she "may back out now."

Phillips, whose Stó:lō name is Siyamiyateliyout, will be presented with an honorary doctor of letters degree at the university's convocation ceremony.

She said she has lived and breathed the language all her life to the point where she held imaginary conversations with her parents in Halq'eméylem, pronounced hal-kah-me-lem, while at the Catholic-run St. Mary's residential school in Mission from 1947 to 1954.

Holding on to language

Phillips said the students were punished for speaking their Indigenous languages and many did not bring the language back to their homes when they left the school.

"I, more or less, I guess, thought in the language but didn't speak it," she said. "I was thinking about my parents. I don't know if I was pretending to talk to them. I'm not sure, but I managed to keep my language."

Phillips said her dedication to preserving the language started when she was in her early 30s and local leaders, knowing she spoke English and Halq'eméylem, approached her to join an elders circle to record and translate the Indigenous language.

"They got very concerned about the languages," she said.

Phillips said 17 different Halq'eméylem dialects were recorded. Halq'eméylem was an oral language but the elders group managed to create a dictionary and writing system that helped ensure its preservation.

Phillips was able to focus on language development when she worked at the Coqualeetza Cultural Education Centre in Chilliwack during the 1980s. The centre is dedicated to the promoting, preserving and interpreting Stó:lō language, lifestyle, tradition and heritage.

Elizabeth Phillips says she practised Halq’eméylem language in her head while at residential school, where children were punished if they spoke their language out loud. (University of the Fraser Valley)

A linguist has also recorded Phillips speaking her native tongue on film and as an ultrasound recording, allowing students to see how the muscles move inside the mouth for certain sounds.

Classroom visits

Shirley Hardman, the university's senior Indigenous affairs adviser, said Halq'eméylem was the first language Phillips learned as a child and she now is the last of the language's totally fluent speakers. The recognition she will receive from the university is for a lifetime of dedication to ensuring the language will survive, said Hardman.

"It's absolutely huge," she said. "It acknowledges the importance of the language she dedicated her life to."

Phillips said she visits regularly visits Halq'eméylem language classrooms at the university and at area schools and often consults on the development of courses. Phillips said her daughter and grandson both teach language lessons and her great-granddaughter recently spoke to her middle school class in Halq'eméylem.

"It couldn't be going any better, I would say," she said. "That makes my life worthwhile, I would say. All the work I've done."