Leah Meunier, of the Katzie Nation, is passionate about saving her nation's language, Downriver Halkomelem, since there are no fluent speakers left in her community.

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Passion and perseverance lead to master’s degree

June 10, 2019
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Leah Meunier, a Katzie Nation language instructor and mother to six children aged 6 to 16, never dreamed she would be crossing SFU’s convocation dais on June 13th to receive a master’s degree.

But passion is a strong motivator. And Meunier is passionate about saving her nation’s language, Hənqəmínəm̓(Downriver Halkomelem), since there are no fluent speakers left in her community.

She began learning the language when it was introduced at school in Grade 3. But when the program ended two years later, she didn’t take another class until age 15, when it was again taught in her community. She enjoyed the classes so much that, by age 17, she was teaching them herself. Her interest led to a First Nations Language Proficiency Certificate from SFU, and she also got involved in a language-learning partnership between the Katzie community and SFU. Over the past several years, she has been helping SFU professor Susan Russell and Katzie members develop a teaching curriculum for Halkomelem.   

Indigenous languages establish a connection to the land

Meunier has invested her time in learning and teaching her language because, she says, “If you can understand the language, you get a snapshot of what the land and water looked like to our ancestors. It brings a sense of connectedness to the land, and instills a sense of pride when you know the language of your ancestors and that it’s still alive and breathing.”

Still, she never aspired to earn a university degree. But in 2017 when the SFU linguistics department introduced its first master’s degree program in First Nations languages, she took the plunge after encouragement from Russell and friends and family.

Resurrecting lost Indigenous skills and language

During the two-year program, Meunier studied at the Burnaby campus. For her thesis, she wrote a series of how-to booklets that explain, in Downriver Halkomelem and English, the lost Katzie art of extracting fibre from stinging nettles. The fibre was used to create fishing nets, baskets, ropes and other products.

Before Meunier could write the booklets, however, she first had to rediscover the traditional process and then re-create the language around this work.

She also wrote a children’s story for her thesis, The Adventures of t̕ət̕emiyeʔ, based on a character from a traditional Katzie story. Writing the story was a three-step process. She wrote it in English, had it translated into Upriver Halkomelem by fluent speaker Siyamiyateliyot Elizabeth Phillips, and then translated that version herself into Downriver Halkomelem.

Meunier earned straight A’s in the master’s program, but says it wasn’t easy. Keeping the bigger picture in mind turned out to be crucial, she says, as she faced many personal and family challenges along the way. She seriously considered quitting during her second year, when her sister died and she stepped in to care for her niece, as well as help her own children cope with the loss of their beloved aunt.

But Meunier persevered, and will be attending convocation this month with her family on hand to cheer her on.

“If you’re really passionate about something, there are going to be hiccups, and mountains you have to climb,” says Meunier, who plans to continue her work to preserve her language. “But in the end, it’s worth it.”