UBC Okanagan launches Canada’s first bachelor’s degree in Indigenous language fluency

UBC Okanagan announced that it will begin offering a Bachelor of Nsyilxcn Language Fluency (BNLF) — the first of its kind at a Canadian university — this September.

The program is a product of close collaboration with the Syilx Okanagan Nation and will be offered in partnership with the En’owkin Centre and Nicola Valley Institute of Technology (NVIT).

Students will complete their first two years of the four-year degree at NVIT delivered through the En’owkin Centre. Each cohort of students will then be transferred to complete their third and fourth years at UBCO. This structure allows students to learn fluency directly from elders in a community-based setting while still enjoying a university experience.

Since its opening in 2005, the Okanagan campus has been situated on the territory of the Syilx. At the time, Okanagan chiefs met with the incoming UBCO president to form a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Syilx people and the university. Central to the MOU was the Syilx chiefs’ request to always be consulted about their needs as a community.

For Dr. Jeannette Armstrong, a professor of Indigenous studies at UBCO and the academic lead of the BNLF program, “it hasn’t been so much a consultation — it’s really been a working relationship.”

And the BNLF program is the continuation of that relationship.

Following its announcement on March 29, there has been an overwhelmingly positive response from students and faculty. Armstrong expressed not only hope but an expectation that other post-secondary institutions follow UBCO’s footsteps. “Not just UBC Vancouver, but all the public institutions that are funded publicly through resources that are being taken from these lands … [have] a responsibility to those languages on whose lands they are situated.”

She said that other First Nations language groups in the BC interior are developing their own frameworks as well.

Though the UBC Vancouver campus does not currently have a bachelor’s program in Indigenous language fluency, students can still obtain a BA in the First Nations and Endangered Languages (FNEL) program.

Dr. Patricia A. Shaw, founder of the FNEL program at UBC Vancouver, explained that although the programs share common goals, they are structured to meet those goals in different ways. While BNFL students at Okanagan can work with Syilx elders to achieve language fluency, the FNEL program focuses on language reclamation and revitalization.

For the Musqueam Nation, whose territory UBC Vancouver is situated on, “that generation of [hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓] speakers has passed, and so the situation there is more of a reclamation of the language,” said Shaw. “It’s not that the UBC Vancouver campus doesn’t want fluency … but it’s a very different challenge when you don’t have elders who speak the language anymore. … The sad reality is that there are very few communities with the body of speakers that Nsyilxcn has.”

Indigenous language studies and acquisition play a crucial role in informing other fields of study. Armstrong emphasized the need for fluent speakers in public schools, ecological management, healthcare and trauma recovery, where Indigenous knowledge is essential.

“It’s very exciting to have qualified people who have appropriate degrees to be able to move into those particular fields and be able to bring wellness and strength to our communities,” she said.

This article has been updated with wording to reflect that the BNFL program is meant to help students achieve fluency. The Ubyssey regrets this error.