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Saanich Peninsula resident John Elliott is a leading voice in revitalizing language, culture

Locals working hard to ensure first languages are not lost forever
J,SINTEN John Elliott, here seen speaking at the Indigenous language conference HELISET TTE SKAL – ‘Let the Languages Live,’ in 2019 says local First Nations languages are deeply connected to the surrounding land. (Photo courtesy of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation)

This is the fifth instalment in a special series prepared by Black Press Media. You can find more of the series and other articles on truth and reconciliation online at or in this week’s edition of Greater Victoria papers.

The Saanich Peninsula ranks among the leading regions in Canada when it comes to reversing one of the central legacies of the residential school system — the loss of Indigenous languages.

However, this assessment from Policy Options (a publication that tracks policy proposals and legislation) should neither distract from the historical damage the residential school system has done nor downplay the future challenges that lie ahead.

While the deliberate destruction of Indigenous languages happened through instruments of the Canadian state, their revitalization is happening through the joint efforts of local institutions such as the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, based in Brentwood Bay, and individuals like J,SINTEN John Elliott.

Long before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada identified the revitalization of Indigenous languages as a key to reconciliation, regional efforts were taking steps toward this goal and perhaps no one personifies these efforts better than Elliott, a First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation board member and SENCOTEN language teacher and speaker.

Building on the ground-breaking development of a unique SENCOTEN writing system by his late father David Elliott, the younger Elliot and his sister Linda Underwood have been leading current efforts to revitalize and spread SENCOTEN among local Indigenous peoples.

“Our main goal is to have parents and children speak the language at home once again and we haven’t reached that yet,” he said.

Elliott is not blind to the challenges that lie in that goal. For one, he and like-minded individuals have to overcome the historical legacy of the residential school system. As he said, “a planned and organized way to disconnect us from what was our right and our God-given rights to the interpretation of words and language that are holy and sacred to our People,” nearly wiped out SENCOTEN, along with other first languages, and the remaining number of fluent speakers is dropping.

As the third and latest edition of the report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages (2018) noted, the number of individuals who fluently speak first languages continues to decline with the “loss of many of our aging first language speakers.”

READ MORE: Greater Victoria survivor recounts torture he endured at Indian Hospital

According to the report, almost 52 per of the 4,132 self-reported fluent speakers across British Columbia are aged 65 and older. Leaving Elliott fighting against time.

“Very few Elders are remaining,” he said. “When I first started like 40 years ago, we had 18 fluent first language speakers that myself and my sister worked with. We still have about three or four of them that we still work with and help us to keep the language clear and true the way it is naturally spoken.”

But that same report also speaks of successes. While younger fluent speakers aged zero to 24 make up 2.8 per cent of fluent speakers, the number of younger fluent speakers reported has increased since the 2014 report, as has the number of learners (13,997) with almost eight out of 10 within that youngest age category. The report has also found that more and more adults are learning first languages.

These rising numbers reflect the growing educational options for different age groups, as offered through the WSANEC school board, including immersion programming at the pre-school, kindergarten and Grade 1 to 5 levels. The school board has also partnered with the University of Victoria to offer a diploma in Indigenous Language Revitalization, designed to improve the teaching of first languages.

Technology is also changing the delivery of programming. Founded almost 20 years ago, FirstVoices, an initiative of the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, serves as an online platform that allows communities to work on language revitalization.

“The idea is that Indigenous communities document their languages and their language data online and it is fully controlled by the communities,” said Daniel Yona, FirstVoices development manager. As such, the platform serves as an online dictionary but also as a repository for cultural information, he said.

Learners cover a wide range. The majority of the site’s 15,000 monthly visits comes from Indigenous people who are trying to reconnect to their language. “And then we really have a lot of demand from teachers – both formal and informal teachers – who use it to create curriculum and use it to educate people, to create fun activities with the site,” Yona said.

Another large category of users is non-Indigenous members of the general public, who want to learn a specific phrase and its pronunciation, “which is really great,” Yona added.

RELATED: Online resource blends B.C.’s Indigenous language, art and culture

The First Peoples’ Cultural Council also recently launched the First Peoples’ Map of B.C., an interactive online map featuring information about Indigenous languages, arts and cultural heritage in the province.

“Our hope is that this map will help non-Indigenous people to better appreciate Indigenous perspectives as one small step towards reconciliation,” said Karen Aird, acting CEO of the First Peoples’ Cultural Council at the time of the map’s release. “By combining all of this rich information together in one place, the map reflects an Indigenous perspective by braiding important cultural elements together with the land.”

Drawing links between language and land is also something that animates Elliott, whose father once described language as the voice of the land. So what would that voice be saying now?

“The voice is changing right now,” he said. “Our connection with the land has been inhibited by the loss of culture, the loss of land base.”

By rebuilding their language, local First Nations are then in a way also reclaiming ownership of their land in giving language learning a significance that goes beyond the acquisition of vocabulary and grammar for the purpose of communication.

Elliott said students start to realize that language is more than just about speaking to one another.

“That is the way a lot of our people are starving for,” he said. “They are starving for that acknowledgment of connection to our homeland and territories.”

Elliott knows it will take time to strengthen that connection, to repair what decades of official policy have destroyed. More work lies ahead, but Elliott also has time to reflect on what has been achieved.

“Although it has been a long, long struggle, it has been a very meaningful long struggle to get to the point where we are now.”

Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, or 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll free at 1-800-588-8717.

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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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