In the Year of Indigenous Languages, why is an Indigenous student still being forced to take French?

When 12-year-old Creighton Angus-Morrison told his mom he wanted to learn his Sm’algyax language, she thought it would be a no-brainer. 

The Tsimshian dialect is one of 17 Indigenous languages in B.C. for which the Ministry of Education has developed and approved curriculum. And the ministry’s policy on language education clearly states that “all students, especially those of Aboriginal ancestry, should have opportunities to learn an Aboriginal language.” 

But when it came to connecting Creighton — a Grade 7 student in Burnaby — with the Sm’algyax curriculum, things got complicated.

Creighton’s mother, Danella Angus, discovered there were few supports and no formal process at Creighton’s elementary school or at the district level to help her connect with a teacher and navigate the curriculum.

While 2019 was proclaimed the year of Indigenous languages by the United Nations, Creighton’s experience highlights the difficulty that Indigenous students, particularly in urban centres, continue to face when trying to learn their family’s language.

“It’s been hard, hard to get the ball rolling,” Angus said from their home in Burnaby.

“We went about it for the whole year last year from September, and this year they’re forcing him to take French and he’s not liking it.”

The Ministry of Education said in an emailed statement to CBC that it is “committed to moving to full course offerings in Indigenous languages,” but acknowledged the Indigenous languages policy is still a work in progress.

‘I don’t really want to learn French’

When he was in Grade 5, Creighton spent a year in Prince Rupert, immersed in his culture and learning his language from his great-grandfather — something he wanted to continue when he moved back to Burnaby the following year.

He says he doesn’t have a connection to the French language but Sm’algyax connects him to his family, his land and his culture.

“I don’t really want to learn French,” he said. “I want to learn more of my language because when I went to school up north for that one year I learned a lot of new words and now I forgot it because of French.”

The Ministry of Education says some locally developed Indigenous languages — like Sm’algyax — can fulfil the language requirement for grades five through eight.

Danella Angus and her 12-year-old son Creighton Angus-Morrison are pictured outside their home in Burnaby. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Angus proposed that her son learn the language remotely from his great-grandfather in Prince Rupert. 

She began contacting a number of officials in the school system after she was told it was her responsibility to gain access to the Sm’algyax curriculum. But no one seemed to know the process of acquiring it to get the ball rolling.

She says she received no clear answers and only seemed to be presented with more hurdles. 

In the end, Angus says the principal of Lakeview elementary told her it was not possible for her son to learn Sm’algyax in school and directed her to help Creighton learn French. 

In response to her concerns, the Burnaby School District sent CBC a written statement that said: “There’s always been and remains a willingness to work with the family from both the school and the district. The Principal has and continues to express the same willingness.”

‘It really comes down to the how’

Brandon Curr, director of instruction for the Burnaby School District — who was the principal of Indigenous education  last year — admits it is a new and complex situation to have only one child in a school district wanting to learn a specific language remotely. 

“I think in this instance it demonstrates that we are still in the beginning stages of this and really we need to sit down with families and work through how do we make this happen,” Curr said.

According to the Ministry of Education, if the Burnaby School District wanted to deliver Sm’algyax curriculum in their district, it would be the district’s responsibility to reach out to the language speakers in Prince Rupert where the curriculum is housed to request access to it.

Technology is key

“Knowing that there is provincial curriculum for this language, it really comes down to the how,” Curr said.

Technology coupled with distance education may need to play key roles. 

Kirsten Baker-Williams, director of First Nations language and culture at the First Nations Education Steering Committee, says educators are going to need to get creative in order to bring Indigenous languages into the classroom. She says technology will be at the forefront. (Angela Sterritt/CBC )

When Kirsten Baker-Williams, the director of First Nations language and culture at the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC), heard about a 12-year-old boy having trouble learning his language, it struck a chord. 

“Hurdles that this family has had to jump through, it’s really impeding the movement forward of languages and if so many Indigenous people are living off their homelands, I think we’re really losing a great opportunity here,” she said.

Language revitalization in schools is in its infancy. Only last year was an agreement struck between the province and FNESC to get Indigenous languages in schools, but the bulk of that energy is focused on First Nations schools, rather than schools in urban centres.

Outside of Indigenous communities, things get tricky, especially when a student is striving to learn a language remotely, like Angus-Morrison. 

“People might be feeling overwhelmed to create a structure with so many different Indigenous languages but technology is playing key pieces of it,” Baker-Williams said.

“Kudos to that boy for sticking to it because he’s likely going to be a future language teacher or a language leader in some shape or form.”

Since CBC aired this story Thursday morning, the Ministry of Education says that the Burnaby School District is now speaking with the Prince Rupert School District about getting Creighton access to his language.