June 12, 2020

Linguistics grad Julienne Ignace follows footsteps of barrier-breaking parents

Julienne Melmenétkwe Ignace jokes that she used to think of herself as a “bad student;” someone who loved to learn but didn’t always enjoy school. It’s a surprising confession from someone who spent her pre-teen years as a very young research assistant helping her mother, esteemed SFU linguistics professor Marianne Ignace, take academic notes and transcribe audio interviews.

This June, Julienne (pronounced Sulyan) will receive both a BA in linguistics and a diploma in linguistics and First Nations Language Proficiency (FNLP) for Secwépemctsín (Shuswap Language) after years of persevering in her studies, reflecting on her goals, and changing her path when needed.

She is one of 137 Indigenous graduates at SFU this spring.

Her path didn’t always follow in the footsteps of her barrier-breaking parents. Her father Chief Ron Ignace, who has a PhD in anthropology from SFU, was one of the first Indigenous students in a pilot program for adult students in the early 1970s that aimed to increase Indigenous post-secondary school attendance. He and Marianne have since co-authored award-winning research on the history of the Secwépemc people in the Southern Interior.

Julienne says her dad likes to joke that she and her siblings have a “paradox” for parents (a “pair” of “docs”).

“I had what I lovingly call my ‘rebellion’ phase, where I had taken many courses in linguistics but I also really loved the courses I had taken in psychology. I considered doing a double major in linguistics and psychology, and even charted a path to do either my MA in clinical psychology or medical school, which would have led me to being a psychiatrist.”

But neither path held its appeal for Julienne, who at the time felt the long haul of either choice was overwhelming. She decided instead to focus on her aptitude for linguistics and to steep herself her home language of Secwépemctsín so she could regain the fluency she lost as a child.

“I was immersed in Secwepemctsín as a small child, but—as is painfully familiar for many Indigenous children—once I got to a certain age and entered grade school (in English) it started to fade,” she says. “And there were literally no children’s television shows or books in my home language at that time.”

Her parents very consciously made the decision to speak Secwepemctsín exclusively at home when their children were young.

Says Marianne Ignace, “While keeping English out is a daunting undertaking in this day and age where English is the language of education, of media, of power, we managed to instill in all of our children a good enough foundation in the language that they could then as young adults study it further–which is what Julienne has been able to do, learning from her kye7e (grandmother) Mona Jules, myself and other elders in our community classroom at the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council.”

Marianne notes that alongside other students in the FNLP program, Julienne has “spent hundreds of hours in a mentor-apprentice program improving her skills one-on-one with our elders Daniel Calhoun, Christine Simon, Julie A. Antoine and her late “father” (by Secwepemc adoption) James Peters.”

Since Julienne completed her degree credits in the fall 2019 semester, she has travelled to Philadelphia for research with her mother, and in March 2020 landed a job as a research associate for the Stk̓emlupsemc Te Secwépemc Nation (SSN).

Were it not for the COVID-19 global pandemic Julienne’s job would have involved researching Indigenous land titles and cultural histories of the Stk̓emlúps te Secwépemc Nation and Skeetchestn community at museums, and interviewing elders in those Indigenous communities. But with museums closed and the risk of visiting elders too great a threat to their health, Julienne’s job now involves remote research into context and background, with occasional visits to the SSN offices.

Although dealing with COVID-19 has been hard for the community, especially not being able to practise important cultural traditions like gathering for births or funerals, there is much strength in the community and everyone understands what is at stake.

“Our people have lived through several pandemics. We have a precedence for this and we know what to do to survive. We also know the knowledge carried and held by our elders is too precious to risk, so we’re all taking extra precautions and there’s a complete understanding. We’re all united in protecting the elders so that we can buy as much time as possible to preserve and record what they know for future generations, giving our language and culture just that little better chance at long-term survival and prosperity.”