Ella's First Day of School

Originally published in the Island Tides on September 21, 2016

This September, Ella, my 4 year old, started preschool at the ȽAU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal School on West Saanich Road. After dropping her off on her first day, I was reminiscing about my family’s education history in that place.

My grandmother, Laura Bartleman, was five years old when priests from Kuper Island Residential School took her from her family home just down the road from Ella’s school. Other than brief visits during the summer and sometimes at Christmas, Laura lived at the school until she was fifteen, when her mother died, and she was called home to look after her family. Laura was a good student and learned impeccable English and beautiful handwriting. Although she never forgot her SENĆOŦEN language, she never spoke it again.

Grandpa Ernie Olsen was also sent to Kuper Island when he was about twelve. He was lucky enough to only spend a few years at the school; not long enough to silence his language. In the 1970’s, Ernie worked with Dr. Tom Hess at the University of Victoria in a language revival project and it is thanks in part to him, and a few other W̱SÁNEĆ language holders, that SENĆOŦEN has survived.

By the time my father, Carl, went to school, the Catholic Church had set up day schools on many reserves to supplement the Residential School system. Bub, as he was known as a boy, went to the old Tsartlip Day School that is still standing on the grounds of ȽAU, WELṈEW̱. The nuns spent more time teaching the children catechism and the Stations of the Cross than the reading and writing skills he taught himself later.

Thirty-five years ago, I went to Little Raven Kindergarten in the same location. Saanich leaders such as the late Philip Paul, Marie Cooper, Doreen Pelkey and others, fought to take control over our education. By the time I was there, the nuns were gone. My teachers were W̱SÁNEĆ women who loved and encouraged us to be the best we could, but the school struggled to keep up to the academic demands of the day.

Thanks to the dedicated work of Ella’s relatives, she is part of the SENĆOŦEN LE,NOṈET SCULÁUTW̱ (SENĆOŦEN Survival School), where children 3-5 years old are fully immersed in the language for two hours a day.

This program is the result of a strong SENĆOŦEN language program that over the past decade has rescued our ancient language from the edge of extinction. Now, the SENĆOŦEN Master Apprenticeship Program is teaching adults, young and old alike, fluency in the language.

Some of those apprentices have gone on to get linguistic degrees at university. They have returned to the school to teach the next generation of students.

Ella is learning the original language of W̱SÁNEĆ (“the emerging land”). Through the language she will be taught the ways, beliefs and values of the W̱SÁNEĆ worldview.

On the second day of school, I went to Little Raven to drop off a family-mapping project, Ella’s first homework assignment completed to perfection by her mother. I heard the lively beat of a hand drum pulsating from a tiny longhouse style structure at the far corner of the playground.

The high-pitched voices of the children cut joyously through the air as they sang. At bath time Ella serenades the household with the beautiful songs she has learned. Our little girl has become our teacher.

For more than a century, Indigenous policy in Canada and British Columbia was aimed at destroying indigenous languages and with them the ancient and important ways of understanding our world. SENĆOŦEN came perilously close to being forgotten but with the love and dedication of Ella’s great-grandfather and many of her relatives, it was recorded and preserved so once again it can dance on the tongues of W̱SÁNEĆ youth.

Adam Olsen

Stellys Cross Road, Brentwood Bay, BC, V8M 1J7