Only seven people on the entire planet can still fluently speak Skwomesh, the language of the Squamish peoples, whose traditional territory covers large parts of Metro Vancouver. But a new program at one of the city’s top universities is aiming to change all of that.
Starting in September, Simon Fraser University will offer a groundbreaking full-time immersion program in Skwx̱wú7mesh sníchim, or the Skwomesh language. Students will study seven hours a day, five days a week, in a unique effort to bring the language back from the brink of extinction.
The program is the brainchild of 26-year-old Squamish Nation member Khelsilem, reports the CBC. He began learning the language from cassette tapes as a teenager, before starting a blog in 2011 and offering his own podcasts and YouTube videos on the subject. Occasional classes on the Skwomesh language were offered in local schools, but there were no serious, long-term programs. So Khelsilem pioneered his own.
The new course, inspired by similar immersion models used to revive the Mohawk language in Quebec, will provide 15 students with 1,000 classroom hours of intensive language instruction, leading to a certificate in First Nations language proficiency. The immersive nature of the program – with students studying full-time, day in and day out – is critical owing to the complexity of the language and the fact that many learners will be starting essentially from scratch.
Currently, there are approximately 4,000 members of the Squamish Nation, spread across an expansive traditional territory that extends from North Vancouver all the way to the city of Squamish, along the Sea to Sky Highway, according to the CBC. All First Nations members will be eligible for funding to cover tuition costs for the program, and Khelsilem has also founded a not-for-profit to raise additional funds for scholarships.
The new program isn’t the first First Nations language immersion at SFU. Last year, the university organized a four-month bootcamp in the Haida language (held in Haida Gwaii) and also offered an immersion program in the Okanagan language.