There are words in the forest.
Around Baker Drive Elementary in Coquitlam, you can spot pictures of crows, coyotes and chipmunks. The placards feature the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ words used since time immemorial. But they also feature QR codes intended to bring the traditional language into the modern age.
The project is part of an effort at “active reconciliation,” explains elementary school teacher Kelsey Keller.
It’s an educational initiative that owes something to Canada’s shifting culture as well as the personal experiences of two teachers.
Keller, along with her fellow educator “partner in crime” Denean Lederer, had each come to a similar realization in their lives.
“For both of us it’s been a pretty difficult journey to try to figure out where we’ve come from,” Keller says.
For both teachers, they grew up with a culture wasn’t talked about and a language that wasn’t spoken.
There was a tendency to hide being Indigenous as being something alien or inferior, Keller explains. But recently she realized she didn’t have to hide anymore.
“We can step into this history, this identity, with pride,” she says.
Keller began learning the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language.
Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ is the downriver dialect of Halkomelem, one of the Coast Salish family of languages.
Learning the traditional language of the Kwikwetlem people as an adult was humbling, Keller says, but there was also a joy in learning the words and the stories behind them.
“Language is something that is about more than just naming things,” she says. The language is rooted in place, in history and in stories, and about the connection between things.
In and out of the classroom
While there’s still a lot of work to be done, education has undergone massive changes, Keller says, noting a few significant omissions from her elementary school days.
“We never learned about Indigenous people. We never learned about residential schools,” she says.
Today, however, she is working to provide meaningful lessons to her students, in part to ensure that “truth and reconciliation” isn’t reduced to a “token phrase.”
“It’s rooted in the land and the stories and the people,” Keller says.
Students have wanted to know more, particularly about plants and animals.
The placards around the elementary school allow for classes to trek through the area, scanning the signs and hearing the words spoken aloud in the forest. It’s a way for students to have new words and the new thoughts that follow behind those words.