Autumn Cooper, a young teacher from the Stz’uminus First Nation near Ladysmith, is eager to learn and pass on her Hul’qumi’num language to future generations.
“The language is on the verge of extinction and I have a lifetime of learning ahead of me,” Cooper said Wednesday after the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation announced $35 million in funding to support the reclamation and revitalization of First Nations languages, arts, culture and heritage across B.C.
“The power you feel learning your language, there are no words for it — you feel so much more connected to your culture in so many ways because of your language,” said Cooper.
She said support from the First Peoples’ Cultural Council’s Youth Empowered Speakers (YES) program has been life-changing. It provides B.C. First Nations students like Cooper who are studying education and early childhood education with one-on-one mentor-apprentice language learning and funding to support their post-secondary studies.
“I am so thankful that I have this opportunity,” said Cooper. “As a teacher, I envision creating a fully immersive classroom experience where culture and language are connected.”
The $35 million over three years to the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and Foundation will support revitalization programming and operations, and is on top of the $50-million grant provided in 2018 to address the need to restore languages lost to time and colonialism, said Minister Murray Rankin.
“We are taking action with our partners to reverse the disruption to Indigenous languages from the history of colonization,” said Rankin. “We want a province where Indigenous languages and cultures are living, used, taught and celebrated throughout their respective territories.”
Tracey Herbert, CEO of the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, said the new funding will allow the council to respond to the needs identified by knowledge keepers by creating more opportunities to share their Indigenous knowledge with the next generation through language sharing, the arts and cultural events. She said the council will continue to build technology, resources, programs and employment opportunities to respective First Nations.
Included in the funding is $2.6 million from the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training to boost the Youth Empowered Speakers program, which is designed to develop new First Nations language speakers to become teachers who will work in First Nations communities.
British Columbia is home to 34 First Nations languages and more than 90 dialects, making up more than half of all First Nations languages in Canada, according to the Ministry of Indigenous Relations.
And the levels of young learners are increasing. A 2018 report on the status of B.C. First Nations languages said there were 13,997 new learners and 4,132 speakers, and 78% of new learners were younger than 25.
In 2020-21, the First Peoples Cultural Council delivered more than $20.4 million in grants to individuals and communities, supported more than 4,150 language-immersion opportunities, documented 182 cultural practices and involved 940 people in arts projects.