Three decades after the province's last residential school closed in Mission, Halq'eméylem is being incorporated into the regular curriculum at seven schools in the district.
"A second language is good no matter what, but it's especially significant because of the historical, cultural, and emotional significance," said Deroche elementary principal Sue McLeod. "Our aboriginal population lost their language through the residential schools and the Indian hospitals. It's pretty significant that this is now provided for these students and their families."
Seven of ten students at Deroche are aboriginal. Halq'eméylem, the traditional language of the Stó:lo people, will become a regular class subject for all of the school's Kindergarten to Grade 6 students starting this month.
The 30–45 minute classes, led by teacher Peter Lindley, will be on Mondays and Fridays during regular class time, and families and community members are welcome to participate as well.
"We feel often it was the relatives that were in the residential school, and they weren't able to pass down that language, and so we feel this is an opportunity to regain some of that for these families," said McLeod.
During a naming ceremony at Deroche on Tuesday, during which Lindley gave students and staff a Halq'eméylem translation of their English names, Lindley spoke about what an achievement it was just to find common linguistic ground. Halq'eméylem dialects vary widely, with people from Chehalis to Chilliwack to Coquitlam all speaking different versions.
Feedback from parents on the language classes has been overwhelmingly positive, with many approaching Deroche staff to express how glad and excited they were that Halq'eméylem is finally coming to the school.
Carolynn Schmor, aboriginal education principal for the district, said that elders are especially pleased.
"It's been a long time coming, especially with the history of our residential schools, and how that language was systematically and purposely removed from the people. We have a moral obligation to open the doors to our families to offer this teaching," said Schmor.
It's also an effort to prevent a language – and the associated cultural meanings – from extinction.
"If we don't do this now, we are at a point where we could lose the language permanently…We're just doing our part to make sure that language isn't lost," said Schmor.
McLeod compared the compulsory second language instruction to students having a mandatory French class in other school districts.
"We do have 30 per cent of the population that is non-aboriginal, but again, learning a second language is great. Learning structures of language, learning syntax…are excellent," she said.
In addition to Deroche, the other schools that also started offering Halq'eméylem instruction are Christine Morrison elementary, West Heights elementary, Mission Central elementary, Hatzic secondary, and Fraserview Learning Centre.
Schmor said that the Mission school district is working on having the language at other schools as well, including Mission secondary.
The goal is to eventually allow high school students to fulfill their graduation language requirements with Halq'eméylem courses.
McLeod sees the courses as another important step towards building trust and reconciliation in Mission. She is seeing families become more engaged with the school, and has had new volunteers step forward offering to help teach Halq'eméylem.
"There's a lot of history in our First Nations people that a lot of time people want to brush under, but we're always in a position of building trust among our families," said McLeod.
The Abbotsford and Chilliwack school districts also offer Halq'eméylem courses.
The language program is the latest effort to fulfill the provincial Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement, which is the working agreement between a school district, all local aboriginal communities, and the Ministry of Education to support aboriginal students.