Victor Guerin has worked for over 30 years to revitalize hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, one of three dialects of the Coast Salish Halkomelem language, and the closest to extinction. Photo: © City of Vancouver

Victor Guerin is dedicated to revitalizing the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language and pressing for Indigenous rights

August 25, 2020

Victor Guerin, a master’s student in Linguistics for a First Nations Language, has been awarded the 2020-21 Indigenous Graduate Entrance Scholarship (IGES). Guerin is dedicated to revitalizing hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, the downriver dialect of the Halkomelem language spoken by the Musqueam people. There are fewer than 200 speakers of the Halkomelem language overall and only four proficient speakers of the Musqueam’s hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ dialect.

“I've been involved in revitalization of my language for some 30-plus years and my family's been politically involved for generations,” says Guerin. “My grandma was a political activist pressing for Indigenous rights.”

Guerin, who will enter the Individualized Interdisciplinary Studies PhD program in the Fall 2020 semester, is documenting the knowledge passed on to him by Musqueam elders over the decades. Compiling source information in one place will provide the First Nation’s leadership with a basis to press forward with its battle to re-establish Indigenous rights and title.

Guerin's path to learning linguistics at SFU began as a child when his mother as Band Administrator hired his late granduncle Arnold Guerin to run a language instruction program at Musqueam. His path to learning about Indigenous laws began at the opening of Expo 86.

“My late granduncle taught us some performances coming from the late warrior qeyəpəlanexʷ known to us as Capilano the Great,” he says. “And at one point my granduncle brought me from being one of the dancers to standing beside him and singing because his voice had started to decline. He was normally the one that was called upon to speak on behalf of the group and one evening he just put his hand on the small of my back and said, you go do it. I'd been learning the language but I wasn't a speaker yet. I said to him, but uncle I only know a few words here and there. And he just quietly said to me, it doesn't matter, you'll never learn unless you just do it. And gradually my words in our language increased and eventually I was doing speeches completely in our language with the English translation later on.”

Eventually Guerin set off on his own and started doing territorial welcomes for political groups, business and academic gatherings, and at environmental rallies.

“Then the idea came to me that I should look into the genesis of these territorial welcomes,” he says. “And what they come from is our pre-contact practice. One of the songs that was taught to us by my late granduncle for Expo 86 was a welcome song and the other one was a paddle song. Now those two songs are sort of two sides of a single coin. Each community used paddle songs to identify themselves when they were approaching another village. That's the way they identified themselves as friends rather than foes. And then the welcome song of course was used to welcome them.”

But it struck Guerin that there was a component missing from the territorial welcome as it’s practiced today:

“We can take for instance the examples of the arrivals of Captain Vancouver and Simon Fraser in Musqueam territory. When Captain Vancouver arrived everybody was congenial and our people went aboard his ships and traded with him. Conversely, when Simon Fraser came down [the river named after him] he had stolen a canoe from one of our friends’ villages upriver and they'd gotten word down to Musqueam before he arrived that this had happened. So when he arrived at Musqueam he was greeted by a flotilla of canoes and he was informed that he was no longer welcome in this territory and that he was to go back. So that's the component that’s missing from the territorial welcome as it's done today: the fact that our people in that time had authority to say, no, you're not welcome to come ashore. So the basis of my PhD thesis is looking into the territorial welcomes and the legal authority that Indigenous people had in pre-contact time.”

The IGES award goes to students who have demonstrated academic excellence, and outstanding achievement in their studies with emphasis on intellectual ability, originality and ability in research.

Photo sourced from © City of Vancouver.