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Private school in B.C. Interior replaces French with Nsyilxcən

An independent school in Kelowna, B.C., has swapped out French as its second language of instruction and replaced it with an endangered language of the local Westbank First Nation.

The switch happened earlier this month at Studio9 School of the Arts, a K-to-12 school that has Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Students in Grades 4 through 9 at the school are now being taught Nsyilxcən.

School administration said the move was made in the spirit of truth and reconciliation.

But for Jasmine Peone, it’s about more than that.

As a member of the Westbank First Nation and the person brought in by Studio9 to teach Nsyilxcən, she sees its addition to the curriculum as a way of keeping a language and culture from vanishing.

Nsyilxcən language teacher Jasmine Peone works with students at Studio9 School of the Arts in Kelowna, B.C. (Michael Guzzi)

“It’s estimated now that we’re down to about roughly 50 fluent speakers left in our entire nation,” Peone said on CBC’s Radio West.

“So it’s really crucial that we get on with revitalizing our language as much as possible, and as quickly and thoroughly as possible — definitely within our communities and with our own people, but also with the public at large in order to bridge those cultures and those world views.”

A hands-on approach to learning

The Westbank First Nation is part of the larger Syilx Okanagan Nation. Peone, an archaeologist by trade, said Nsyilxcən language instruction at Studio9 is centred around the Syilx’s 13-month calendar.

“Everything that happens on the land is kind of related to that calendar, and within our language all of our cultural values and worldview and perspectives are woven into the language,” she said.

Peone said Nsyilxcən is an oral language, so much of the focus at Studio9 is on oral teaching and learning. But she said students are also learning grammar and the written word. One of her objectives is to make the learning process as hands-on as possible.

“She’s choosing to do specific projects that are both cultural and language-based,” said Michael Guzzi, executive director of the Studio9 Independent School of the Arts Society. 

Guzzi points to projects such as weaving mats for teepees, and going out and looking for food and medicinal sources, “those sorts of things that take the language to the culture and the culture to the language.”

Peone said Indigenous and non-Indigenous students are responding positively so far.

“They’re enthusiastic in practicing the words, they really like the different concepts and worldviews that come with them,” she said.

Bringing Nsyilxcən to school ‘a process’: arts society director

Peone started working with Studio9 School of the Arts last year. She gave Nsyilxcən language presentations to students in various grades, and that led to this year’s full-time programming. 

But the work to bring Nsyilxcən into the regular curriculum began in earnest about five years ago, and was rooted in a conversation 10 years ago between Guzzi and the Westbank First Nation.

At that time, Studio9 had just become a school of the arts.

“I went to Westbank First Nations — to the museum — to see about Indigenous art, and from that conversation I kind of had it in the back of my mind that I would like to have Nsyilxcən taught to our students,” Guzzi said.

“It’s just been a process.”

Overcoming the impact of residential schools

Peone noted that Canada’s residential school system disrupted the ability of Nsyilxcən speakers to pass the language along to younger generations.

That happened in her own family, she said, with three generations — including her grandmother — being forced to attend residential schools.

She called herself “far from fluent” but said it’s “really important to do that work and be able to share the aspects of our culture and share the true history and knowledge of these lands with those who live and reside in our territory.”

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