People Profiles

Ethel Gardner PhD, Education

September 24, 2015
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In 1975, Dr. Ethel Gardner, a Stó:lō member of the Skwah First Nation, decided she wanted to learn how to speak her people’s traditional language. Searching Vancouver bookstores for a resource on the Halq'eméylem language, Gardner was shocked by what she found: absolutely nothing.

Gardner is an Elder in Residence at SFU, and the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology. Now (mostly) retired, she has held professorships at multiple universities including SFU, Lakehead University and the University of Alberta. She continues to work as a sessional faculty member at the University of the Fraser Valley. She completed a Special Arrangements PhD at SFU in 2002 and an Ed.M. from Harvard University in 1993.  

“I was born in Hope, BC, but then we moved to Quebec. We would get taunted by neighborhood kids. They would say you’re Indians and my dad would say 'no you're not, you're half-breeds.' But sometimes at home he would speak Halq'eméylem and he would look so proud when he did. At home we were real Indians but outside we were not. I grew up very confused,” says Gardner.

Returning to BC as an adult, Gardner began focusing her efforts on revitalizing her traditional language so others in her community wouldn't have to experience the same confusion she did. “I wanted to know why there were no resources on our language. I went to university and learned about the history of First Nations in Canada and about residential schools. That made me angry. I wanted to redress what had been done,” she says.

Gardner’s SFU PhD dissertation examined the syntax, history and cultural significance of the Halq'eméylem language. The experience she said not only cemented her passion for the field, but was personally transformative. “Through my PhD, I was able to establish how language tied us together with our identity, land, spirituality. It was an epiphany. I came to understand what it means to be Stó:lō,” she says.

As a faculty member at Simon Fraser University, and later, Lakehead University, Gardner led the design and development of Indigenous teacher education programs across Canada.  As well, she was the director of the Indigenous Languages Education initiative with the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education. 

Gardner explains that what she is most proud of are the many Indigenous language teachers she has helped train over the years. “Now they are out there helping grow the language in communities, band schools, adult classrooms, Head Start programs—everywhere—Indigenous peoples across Canada can stay connected with their culture and what it means to be a First Nations person in their context,” she says. 

Gardner credits SFU as helping get her started on what has been a career that has touched so many lives. "I was thrilled with what I was able to do at SFU. I was able to determine how I wanted to do things at every step," she says. 

Author: Jackie Amsden

In 2008, BC’s Ministry of Education approved Halq'eméylem, the language of the Sto:lo nation, as a provincially approved second language curriculum.
In 2008, BC’s Ministry of Education approved Halq'eméylem, the language of the Sto:lo nation, as a provincially approved second language curriculum.

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