Language revitalization “is a deep blessing”

By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

“Like words and music, culture and language go hand in hand,” said Shuswap Band’s new language planner, Sheila Fontaine. “Revitalizing Secwépemc language supports the revitalization of Shuswap culture, and in turn, brings back a way of life and an understanding of cultural traditions and traditional knowledge.”

Indigenous Peoples were stripped of their identities and languages during the times of residential schools. Many Elders and Band members are unaware of their own language but there’s work going on to change that. The Shuswap Band hired Fontaine as their new language planner on February 21. It’s a newly-created full time year-round position, based at the Shuswap Band Administration office.

“Taking on this role is important to me,” said Fontaine. “It is a great honour to help the Elders reclaim their language. By doing this, we can teach our youth the language and their culture. It is important to understand where we all come from, our ancestors fought hard to keep our language and culture.”

Shuswap Band education and employment coordinator, Chenoa Paccagnan, said Fontaine will lead the development of a five-year language plan, which involves learning and understanding what Band members want for the revitalization of Secwepemctsin – the Language of the Secwépemc from British Columbia (B.C.). Secwepemctsin contains deep roots in values, beliefs, rituals, songs, stories, social and political structures and the spirituality of the Secwépemc (Shuswap) people.

Once the five-year plan is solidified, Fontaine will lead the programming to ensure the Secwepemctsin is returned to the Shuswap People. This will give Band members and Elders the opportunity to both learn, and for some, re-learn the language.

“Sheila will complete a language assessment survey to determine how fluent Band members currently are,” said Paccagnan. “There will also be extensive consultations with Band members to learn how membership wants the language to return. From consultations, Sheila will be responsible for developing a five-year language revitalization plan. The plan will guide Band employees in how to deliver language learning and language revitalization as the Band members envision it.” 

Fontaine, of Ojibwe descent and a member of the Shuswap community shared while she did not attend post-secondary school, she had the best language teacher: her grandparents. Fontaine has resided on the Shuswap Reserve for 29 years and has already been a huge support of revitalizing language in the community. She facilitates a First People’s Cultural Council Program called Silent Speakers Language Revitalization. The program helps people remember the Secwépemc language (Secwepemctsin) that they once knew but have forgotten.    

“Hiring Sheila for this position was significant because the language belongs to the Shuswap Band members, and it needs to be brought back to life from within community,” said Paccagnan.  

Fontaine will also continue language revitalization nests for the Silent Speakers of the Shuswap Band. 

“There has been tremendous interest from Band members in participating in Language Nests,” said Paccagnan. “We see Sheila balancing the work of facilitating language nests with writing the language plan.”

Fontaine is learning the Secwépemc language eastern dialect herself, and her first language Ojibwe, as she assists Shuswap Band members and Elders remember theirs.

“The Elders find the language revitalization amazing because the language was taken from them as children,” said Fontaine. “To see the language come back, relearn it and pass it to their children and grandchildren is a deep blessing. It is an honour to be able to carry on what always was, before colonization. I am truly grateful for this opportunity; it is my way of giving back to the community for allowing me to be part of it and call it my home for the past 29 years. I have raised three children here and (it) is home us.”