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Mona Jules

Kamloops graduate struggled for 30 years to preserve her nation’s language

October 2, 2008

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By Roberta Staley

Mona Jules was six years old when the Canadian government foced her and three siblings to attend the Roman Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School in the B.C. Interior. Her nephew Ron Ignace, now chief of the local Skeetchestn First Nation, followed shortly after. They were all separated at school and only saw each other occasionally from a distance.

Five years later, they were allowed to return home after a new primary school was built in their Secwepemc village. But that time in residential school, devoid of human touch and love, left enduring emotional scars. Even today, Jules, now 67, finds it difficult to express physical affection such as embracing her grandchildren.

Her experience with Canada’s notorious residential school system, designed to eradicate aboriginal language and culture through harsh discipline, work and prayer, also made Jules resent her native language, which took years to overcome.

But overcome it she did. Jules graduated this month from SFU’s Kamloops program with a bachelor of general studies degree with a minor in linguistics. The degree is a highlight of her 24-year career as a Secwepemctsin language assistant, researcher, instructor and student during which she has been instrumental in reinvigorating her people’s culture.

Ignace, whose wife Marianne Ignace is an SFU Kamloops associate professor and academic coordinator, was awarded a doctorate in anthropology at the Burnaby campus last spring and was also part of his aunt’s SFU Kamloops graduating class.

Jules was in her late 40s when instructors at SFU Kamloops discovered she had learned different dialects of Secwepemctsin from her grandparents and community elders. They convinced her to collaborate on researching and teaching her language.

At first, "I dug in my heels and told them I did not know my language," says Jules. "But I would dream about my grandmother talking to me and realized this is what she would have wanted."

Preserving the Secwepemc culture and language is a way to empower her people. But Jules says there is no time to waste with only a three-per-cent fluency level among B.C.’s 10,000 Secwepemc people according to one survey. Aboriginal chiefs need to push harder to preserve the language, she says.

"We are making progress, but we need to work much harder at it by offering language immersion from Headstart to Grade 12 and by fostering language literacy among the Secwepemc people. The only way to enable that is by helping adults become fluent, because they are the missing link between generations."
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