The Office of The Commissioner of Indigenous Languages held its first national event in Tk’emlúps (Kamloops), British Columbia on September 14 and 15, 2023, with 80 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples represented by Elders, language experts, educators, translators, and interpreters from across Canada.

Hosted on the traditional territory of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, situated within the unceded ancestral lands of the Secwépemc Nation, the event was held to hear directly from First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people who are on the frontline of protecting and using their languages in partnership with cultural and community organizations.

At a welcoming reception that weaved Indigenous language and culture together, participants witnessed an array of culture, song, and dance within the world renowned Tk’emlúps Powwow Grounds with performances by a local drum group, Inuit throat singers, and Métis fiddlers and dancers. Secwépemc Storyteller, Kenthen Thomas, concluded the event with a stsptekwll (story) titled “The Two Coyotes”. Elder Clara Camille, the first female Chief for her community of Stswecem’c and Xgét’tem, and a Secwepemc language supporter, provided the opening prayer for the event.

The following day on Friday, Rhoda Kaykuaq, an English/Inuktitut translator, provided an opening prayer while Leena Evic, an advocate for the Inuktitut language and culture, lit a Qullik and later talked about the importance of this survival tool.

After the day began in a good way, the Commission conducted a mix of facilitated and panel discussions and heard firsthand what struggles Indigenous language leaders are facing in their communities.

The panel “Looking Toward the Future: Youth Perspectives on Indigenous Languages” included First Nations, Inuit, and Metis ambassadors who are championing their languages through cultural performances, art, sport, academic research, and through strong mentorship relationships with community elders and family members who are language keepers.

Elder Garlene Dodson, afflicted with Parkinsons Disease, continues to teach in-class and on-line. She says she will not stop as she knows she is only one of a handful of elders who are passing on their traditional language. ‘If you don’t have a language, you won’t have a nation. E ta7us ri7 pell xqweqwltén-kt ta7 me7 pell ck̓últens tek stem re xwexwyúlecwems te Secwepemcúl’ecw.”

A second panel discussion on “Interpreters and Translators” emphasized the concern for language experts who are not only teaching their language in community environments but who are also providing interpretation and translation services to governments and other agencies. Due to the declining number of fluent speakers, fatigue is also common. All panelists agreed that more support to adequately provide these services must be given directly to fluent speakers.

The Commission heard of the many vital initiatives taking place within First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities and schools to revitalize languages. The Commission heard many success stories from community members who struggle to overcome common obstacles such as a lack of adequate and sustained funding in revitalization efforts.

The immediate need for more teacher training programs in Indigenous communities was a common and recurring message. Participants also agreed that engaging elder language experts through mentor and apprentice initiatives significantly increases language proficiency.

The Commission also heard that language immersion and language nests are two strong examples of how to revitalize languages in local educational environments.

Indigenous land-based teachings nurture a moral compass as language learners face the dual task of reconstructing and practicing Indigenous knowledge and being reminded about the words of the ancestors. Using land-based teachings that explain the purpose of language form and use is catching the attention of younger adults who are wanting to connect to their culture through language.

Since time immemorial, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis languages were passed on through oral tradition, but many agreed that emphasis must be placed on capturing language in its written form to ensure continuity and survival.

At the end of the discussions and a report back to all participants, Metis elder, fluent Michif speaker and translator Verna DeMontigny, closed the event with a Michif prayer accompanied by Oliver Boulette on the fiddle.

“As this was the first public gathering hosted by the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages, it was evident throughout the day’s discussions that although we are from different nations, with different cultures, traditions, and languages, we are united and stand together in our goal to breathe life back into our languages”, said Commissioner Ronald E. Ignace, the first Commissioner of the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages. “Our people and our communities are best placed to lead the critical work of reclaiming, revitalizing, strengthening, and maintaining our languages. Though the work before us may seem overwhelming, our people and our communities are our strength.”

*Secwepemctsín is an Interior Salish language traditionally spoken by the Shuswap people of British Columbia. There are primarily two dialects of the language (eastern and western) spoken by the Secwépemc people, among the 17 bands.