New initiative launched at SFU to save Squamish language

January 18, 2016

By Tyler Gallop

Seven years ago, the Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim (Squamish language), was on the brink of extinction. Fewer than 10 fluent speakers existed, and that number continued to dwindle as years passed.

Today, the Squamish language has achieved a key turning point to bring it back to the life it once had.  

Kwi Awt Stelmexw, a not-for-profit organization from the Squamish Nation community, has partnered with Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) First Nations Languages Centre and Department of Linguistics to launch a two-year, full-time, adult immersion program that will teach students to become fluent in the Squamish language.

The program will run from September 2016 to April 2017 at SFU’s Burnaby campus. Students will complete 1,000 classroom hours exclusively taught in the language and graduate with SFU’s already existing certificate in First Nations language proficiency.

The goal is to produce 15 fluent Squamish language speakers each year, growing the number of speakers from seven in 2017 to at least 157 by the year 2027.

"We are very excited to be partnering with Kwi Awt Stelmexw and Squamish Nation to offer our certificate program in First Nations language proficiency through this initiative,” says professor Marianne Ignace, the director of SFU's First Nations Language Centre.

“The talents and enterprise that this group is mobilizing, and their approach to language revitalization are truly exceptional."

Leading the program is Squamish Nation member Khelsilem, program director and founder of Kwi Awt Stelmexw. For half a decade, Khelsilem has worked tirelessly to revitalize his ancestral language.

“I started by running volunteer language nights in my father’s home five years ago with only a handful of people,” recalls Khelsilem as he describes the program’s origin.

“The sessions grew to 10, 20, and more people coming on a regular basis. There is a growing hunger among our peoples to learn their language.”

The adult immersion program is accepting applications until March 18 for the 2016-2017 program. To learn more about the program, visit: www.kwiawtstelmexw.com/immersionprogram.

Kwi Awt Stelmexw plans to host a gala at the Chief Joe Mathias Centre on March 11th to raise funds for a scholarship for students of the program. The event will feature keynote speaker Hana O’Regan, a Maori language educator and activist from New Zealand.