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Priorities in action ʔetal nəwəl | ÁTOL,NEUEL Respecting the rights of one another and being in right relationship with all things

Language revitalization

When people experience the attempted erasure of their language and culture, paired with significant land dispossession, restoring balance requires dedication and hard work. UVic has been working with communities to help restore that balance, developing Indigenous language revitalization offerings as one way of honouring the recovery of First Nations peoples’ languages, not only in BC, but across Canada too.

Indigenous language programs at UVic trace their start back to the early 1970s, when a number of Quw'utsun (Cowichan) Elders began looking for ways to revive their language. “In the 70s, people could see that English was taking over and children were not growing up speaking their languages,” says Suzanne Urbanczyk, Associate Professor in Linguistics. “Our language revitalization programs were the first of their kind in North America, and they were driven by the local Indigenous communities.”

Suzanne Urbanczyk

There's so much of the cultural and spiritual belief system encoded in the language. And also how to be on the land. There’s just so much richness in the languages.

More than 40 years on, UVic remains in a learning stance, working to center the language and teachings of local Nations. Language is so much more than just words. It is spirituality, story, place, culture. It is meaning.

Reaching Critical Mass

Ono Mcivor
Onowa McIvor, Professor in Indigenous Education

Over the years, UVic’s Indigenous language revitalization programs have provided training for language teachers and learners, and inspired community activists, university and college professors, researchers, curriculum specialists and committed allies around the world. 

Indigenous language revitalization programs range from certificates and diplomas to undergraduate and graduate degrees, and a PhD by special arrangement. The programs are offered by the Faculties of Education and Humanities and the Division of Continuing Studies, and in partnership with many Indigenous communities and organizations, including vital collaboration with the En’owkin Centre.

In the coming years, UVic’s Aspiration Research Cluster will examine how the university’s language revitalization work directly impacts the local Nations on whose territories we operate. UVic was also recently awarded the significant honour of a Canada Research Chair position in Indigenous Language Revitalization. “That commitment, hand in hand with Aspiration Research Cluster, is a way UVic is tangibly stepping up to that commitment to serve Indigenous languages well,” says Onowa McIvor, Professor in Indigenous Education.

Partnership Makes Everything Possible

Aliki Marinakis
Aliki Marinakis, Indigenous Language Program Manager

Indigenous language revitalization at UVic began in partnership between the Linguistics department and the Faculty of Education providing early training in linguistics and language teaching for speakers of Indigenous languages. The program later expanded off southern Vancouver Island. Soon, it drew people from all over. “There were letters of support from throughout the province, school districts up and down the coast, everywhere,” says Urbanczyk. “Some of the people who finished those early programs became real language leaders in their communities.”

Those language leaders were some of UVic’s earliest partners. And still today, the most essential element of the program’s ongoing success are the partnerships with Indigenous language speakers themselves: their vision, expertise, and depth of understanding. UVic works closely with Indigenous organizations, Elders, community-based researchers, community language experts, other colleges, Crown corporations and educators across the nation. “Everything that's been built at UVic has been because of and with Indigenous community partners,” says McIvor. “The success of those partnerships, from my perspective, really rests in the intelligence and capability, focus and vision from the communities themselves. And UVic's ability to enter those partnerships—to join at that level and build respectful, trusted relationships across many different communities—is the foundation of all the successes that we've had at UVic in Indigenous language revitalization.”

It is humbling work. Much of the language learning is delivered inside the communities themselves, largely by Elders and native language speakers—some of whom have become sessional instructors with UVic for the purposes of the program. Cohorts are small, and the level of customization is high. “We've never delivered a program the same way twice, even with the same community,” says Indigenous Language Program Manager Aliki Marinakis. “All that we've done has been in response to the communities that we work with, because the languages don't belong to us. We're not holding the languages. We're just trying to respond to a community's need.”

UVic’s work in Indigenous language revitalization is a privilege, and signals the importance of working with respect for the rights of each other, showing respect for one another, and being in right relationship with all things. “I really believe in language revitalization,” says Marinakis. “I really believe in the success that I've seen in communities, and feel so honoured that we've been able to walk some of these paths alongside our students, and community partners, doing the amazing work that they're doing.”

Following Lək̓ʷəŋən & WSÁNEĆ leadership

Lydia Toorenburgh

UVic has a unique commitment to Indigenization and decolonialization. A big part of that is that UVic is following Lək̓ʷəŋən and WSÁNEĆ leadership and values rather than just focusing on policy. We need both. You can have policy that’s well-meaning, and still wrong. Grounding our work in Indigenous values will better guide the work to be done.

Just as we know decolonization isn’t a check-box — it isn’t something we can say is accomplished — we can see how values are central in its pursuit. Each university must evaluate its own capacity for transformation. And local Indigenous community knowledge holders and values must guide us in a good way.

Voices in Circle

The Voices in Circle initiative, which spotlights and supports Indigenous performers at UVic’s Farquhar Auditorium, is connecting communities far beyond campus borders. Guided by Indigenous artists themselves, in collaboration with community members and UVic staff, the performance series and associated community engagement activities are strengthening relationships between Indigenous artists, the campus and the wider community—including the Esquimalt, Songhees and WSÁNEĆ nations.

It’s creating a place and space for Indigenous artists to be welcomed and recognized—and gives them an opportunity to engage with so many other audiences.

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