For the first time in history, eight Syilx Okanagan students are set to graduate with a degree taught in their language and delivered on their land when they are conferred their Bachelor of Nsyilxcn Language Fluency (BNLF) degrees on Thursday at UBC Okanagan.
UBCO delivered the degree program in Nsyilxcn—the language of the Syilx Okanagan Nation—through an innovative partnership between Nicola Valley Institute of Technology (NVIT) in Merritt and the En’owkin Centre in Penticton.
The program is based on a framework developed by the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) and the Indigenous Adult and Higher Learning Association (IAHLA), working with a consortium of First Nations, First Nations institutes and public post-secondary institutions.
Dr. Jeannette Armstrong, Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies at UBC Okanagan and academic lead of the BNLF, says years of collaboration made this day possible.
“We are grateful for NVIT. We are grateful for the En’owkin Centre, and we acknowledge the work of UBC Okanagan,” she says. “A great willingness was necessary to make this happen. There isn’t enough money in a public institution for all the extra work needed to create a program like BNLF.
“We’re very fortunate for the willingness, care and love that’s been shown to us here in our territory.”
Chiefs of the seven Okanagan Nation Alliance members began laying the groundwork for BNLF roughly 20 years ago, Dr. Armstrong says. They insisted on a memorandum of understanding that an Indigenous studies degree program would be specific to the Okanagan Nation.
UBCO Principal and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dr. Lesley Cormack says the university was honoured to play a role in language preservation.
“Language is fundamental to culture,” she says. “Preserving and revitalizing the precious Indigenous languages in BC is a crucial aspect of the process of reconciliation and reversing the damage brought by colonialism. I am absolutely thrilled to see the inaugural BNLF graduates at this year’s UBCO convocation ceremony. I am grateful to them for their role in helping establish a path for future students to follow.
“My hope is that the BNLF graduates will go on to share the knowledge they’ve gained to help ensure that the Nsyilxcn language has a permanent, thriving place throughout Syilx territory.”
Tracey Kim Bonneau, the Arts, Culture and Adult Higher Learning manager at En’owkin Centre, said BNLF is an example of how Indigenous and western partners can create meaningful results in times of climate change and social, class and political division.
“That’s how we are healing our nations, through speaking our languages again and healing the planet,” Bonneau says. “It’s happening through the language program, and it’s going to ripple across Turtle Island (North America) and around the world. We can see positive change if we listen to and work with one another.”
The program, however, isn’t just about learning to speak a language. BNLF uses a robust academic framework. Courses included numeracy, the arts and sciences. Students can complete a two-year diploma program through NVIT, and then transfer to UBCO for the degree portion.
“We raise our hands to the graduates and congratulate En’owkin Centre and their partners, NVIT and UBCO, on this historic achievement,” says Tyrone McNeil, President of the First Nations Education Steering Committee. “This is the realization of a long-term vision that demonstrates the progress that can be made through meaningful partnerships between First Nations and public institutions. We commend the Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills for their support of this program and look forward to supporting other First Nations as they launch degrees in their own languages under this framework.”
“We’re honoured to collaborate with the En’owkin Centre and UBCO to support the revitalization of Indigenous Languages by offering language fluency certificates, diplomas and degrees,” reads a statement from NVIT’s Senior Leadership Team. “NVIT congratulates the inaugural UBCO Bachelor of Nsyilxcn Language Fluency graduates and extends our respect to all involved in bringing the vision to creation.”
Dr. Armstrong says that while collaboration between organizations such as FNESC and IAHLA was crucial to BNLF’s success, Indigenous culture is also a shared success.
“It was an Indigenous process,” she says. “We don’t thank one organization or person for doing it all. The achievement of one is the achievement of all.”