Now Or Never

'This is our last chance': Immersion program teaches Sḵwx̱wú7mesh to a new generation

Sḵwx̱wú7mesh is classified as a "critically endangered" language - but a new immersion program aims to increase the number of speakers by 150.
"My heart just soars when I have opportunities to speak to others in my language. Right now, I don't have enough people," says 26-year-old Khelsilem. (Kwi Awt Stelmexw)

French and English may be designated the official languages of Canada — but they are far from the first languages spoken in this land. 

Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim is the Indigenous language of the Squamish people of southwestern British Columbia, and it is classified as "critically endangered" by the First Peoples' Cultural Council. 

But a new language program in Vancouver is helping teach it to a new generation. The program's creator and instructor is a young man named Khelsilem — and he aims to increase the number of speakers by 150 over the next decade. Here's how: 

By Khelsilem, as told to Now or Never

My grandmother is a residential school survivor and went to a residential school for 10 years, where she was forbidden to speak her language. But when she raised me as a young child, she used the words that she knew and used the language that she knew — and instilled in me that our language is still important and that there's value in it.

I knew that it was through immersion that I might be able to become more fluent in my language. So I set out to do that when I was about 19 or 20. I'm now at a point where I feel like giving back and teaching another generation of young people who want the same thing that I wanted. 

We run an adult immersion language program at Simon Fraser University in downtown Vancouver, where students complete approximately 900 hours of instruction over eight months and two terms. And they engage in immersion based activities — so there's no English spoken — with the hopes that over the next 10 years we can increase the number of speakers in our community by 150. 

There is an urgency in the sense that if we don't do something drastic right now, this is our last chance. We're at the very edge of the knife. These are the last few people we have left in the world that grew up speaking the language and have that knowledge — and so it's now or never in a certain sense.

This is the issue within our community that future generations will look back on and determine whether we did enough or not. 

Interview has been edited for clarity and length.