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First cohort completes new nsyilxcən degree at UBCO: ‘our language is very strong’



snikłc̓aʔ tkʷmilxʷsniktcaʔ Jordan (Bower) Polychroniou from Osoyoos Indian Band, centre, is honoured during a ceremony celebrating the first graduates of the Bachelor of nsyilxcən language fluency degree program, at the En’owkin Centre in snpintktn (Penticton) on June 7. Photo by Aaron Hemens

The sound of drums and roaring cheers filled the En’owkin Centre last week as people celebrated the first cohort to complete a new bachelor’s of nsyilxcən language fluency degree.

The program is a collaboration between the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO), the En’owkin Centre and the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology (NVIT).

The first group finishing the undergraduate program marks a historic moment in the syilx Nation’s efforts to revitalize their language — it was the first university in “Canada” to launch a bachelor’s degree in Indigenous language fluency. 

“I’m just thinking of our ancestors that have passed on, and I know that they are watching us today. They’re proud of us. I’m just so happy to be here,” said snikłc̓aʔ tkʷmilxʷsniktcaʔ Jordan (Bower) Polychroniou from Osoyoos Indian Band, one of the eight graduates of the program.

The nsyilxcən language is considered critically endangered due to the legacy of residential “schools” and colonialism —  and it’s estimated that there are less than 50 fluent nsyilxcən speakers. The UBCO program, however, is designed to breathe life into the language by helping to develop new fluent speakers.

During the ceremony in sn’pinktn (Penticton) on June 7, the graduates spoke of how long and difficult the last four years had been for them, as some juggled intensive studies with working full-time jobs and facing life challenges.

The struggles some of them faced during the program, they said, made their graduation feel that much more rewarding.

“Some of us had more than one job. But we did it. We leaned on each other. At some point in time, we all quit,” said kəłk̓impica Rose Caldwell from Westbank First Nation.

“But because we’re close-knit, we helped each get past that, and here we are today.”

haʔmishmish Morning Dove Hall from Osoyoos Indian Band recalled writing her final exam despite dealing with an intense illness.

“That’s the example that I want to leave for my kids and for all of the other kids that are sitting in this room. Because our ancestors fought — literally with their life and their blood — for us to be here,” said Dove Hall. 

“That’s what sticks out in my mind for continuing fighting for nsyilxcən.”

pyaʔ’ Candice Gabriel from Penticton Indian Band recalled a time when she also was dealing with health issues and healthcare workers told her that she couldn’t go to school to achieve this goal.

“Even though there were times I suffered extremely, I’m so grateful and happy,” said Gabriel.

“I’m so grateful for the ones that are coming behind us, because our language is who we are. This tmxʷulaxʷ (land), our syilx, is who we are.”

In addition to Dove Hall, Polychroniou and Caldwell, the graduating class consisted of: sknir̓mn Anona Kampe from Penticton Indian Band; Savannah Louis from Okanagan Indian Band; xʷəstalqs Kathy Michel from Upper Nicola Band; and sq’aʔxax̌inak Sheri Stelkia from Osoyoos Indian Band.

The graduates of the Bachelor of nsyilxcən language fluency degree program stand before the syilx community during a ceremony celebrating their achievements at the En’owkin Centre in snpintktn (Penticton) on June 7. Photo by Aaron Hemens

The graduates each had their name called and honoured, and were then wrapped with a blanket. To return the favour, the eight students created 18 blankets of their own — which all featured their names — for the knowledge keepers, fluent language speakers, instructors and other influential community members who aided their journey.

syilx teachers who assisted the graduates in their journey were present, which included Jeannette Armstrong, Marlowe “Sarge” Sam, Richard Armstrong, Delphine Derrickson Armstrong and Suzanne Johnson.

The graduates also handed out gifts to people in the audience, and Caldwell asked that recipients think of the graduates whenever they use their gifts.

“Give us good wishes because our jobs are far from being finished. This is just the beginning,” Caldwell said. 

“We’ve completed our formal education, and now it’s time for us to reciprocate that education to other speakers who are interested and coming on.”

She noted that there are cohorts in all the different communities around the nation who are coming up, estimating that there should be 12 graduates in next year’s group.

“There should even be more the year after that,” she said. “Our language is very strong. We have probably close to 100 active learning students.”

During the program’s first two years, lessons are delivered in community, where fluent language speakers and cultural workers in different communities across the nation partner to help teach the students.

Tracey Kim Bonneau, executive manager of arts, culture and adult higher learning at the En’owkin Centre, said that at any given time, around 20 fluent speakers across the various communities helped deliver the programming.

She noted that many of the instructing fluent speakers had no prior teaching experience before, but were more than willing to step up and contribute to educating others, undergoing professional development training to do so.

“I think the richness of this program is how community driven it is, and how all of the resources are utilized within community,” said Bonneau, who is from the Penticton Indian Band.

The undergraduate program takes a total of four years to complete. After completing an Indigenous language diploma during the first two years, the students finish the remainder of the program at UBCO, where they are assigned a capstone project that requires them to work in community via an internship to build more language learning capacity.

“It has been extremely difficult to pull this off, because it’s never been done before,” said Bonneau, who also serves as the chair of the Indigenous Adult Higher Learning Association (IAHLA).

The program’s foundation was laid 50 years ago, Bonneau said, when Elders came together to talk about how to contribute to the wellbeing of future generations.

“The En’owkin Centre was formed out of response of the public K to 12 system failing our people,” she said.

“When our syilx children would go to school, they would not learn about themselves. They’d learn about anything but themselves.”

It was around 30 years ago when she said that the En’owkin Centre began developing learning curriculums and language programs, which was partnered with NVIT. 

She said that work on the degree program began in 2011, when IAHLA responded to community concerns over language fluency at different levels of the public education system. 

“The reason for that was because languages in communities, at that time, were being recognized as critically endangered,” said Bonneau.

Before becoming the program’s academic lead, Armstrong — who is a syilx knowledge keeper, fluent language speaker and an associate professor of Indigenous studies at UBCO —  was then commissioned to write a research policy paper.

Bonneau said that Armstrong’s ensuing policy paper “focused on building individual language fluency through community fluency, to be taught to benefit — and contribute — to a network of speakers.”

Upon the policy paper being presented, Bonneau said that it was then agreed upon by a group of post-secondary institutes that a framework was required to help create a language fluency degree, one that fit the university pedagogy and academic learning system.

“It just made sense that we would participate with the consortium, with the public post-secondary institutes, to look at what a degree would look like if we were to create a degree that was building fluency in the nsyilxcən language,” she said.

With the first cohort of the program now graduated, she said that she feels that the prayers, the ceremonies and sacrifices made by her ancestors and all of the fluent speakers are being heard.

“They sacrificed. They saw a vision,” she said. “They’re so resilient and they resisted, and I’m really happy that they did.”

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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors




From left: Whitney Cardenas, Chris Ingle and Jaden Sampson were at the career fair with PIB’s fire department. Photo by Athena Bonneau

During a career fair in “Penticton” last week, Indigenous secondary school students heard from 26 mentors working in different industries — giving the Youth an opportunity to learn about various professional pathways.

The event was the first-ever Indigenous Career Fair held by School District 67’s (SD67) Indigenous Parent Group, planned in collaboration with the district’s Indigenous Education Program and held at Princess Margaret Secondary School.

It aimed to bridge the gap between post-secondary aspirations and alternative career paths, and set Indigenous Youth up for success after high school.

The Youth learned about various industries from professionals including water technicians, Youth and family workers, teachers, artists and more. 

Along with covering the event as a journalist on Nov. 16, I also represented my industry as a mentor, talking to the Youth in Grades 8 to 12 about my career as a freelance storyteller contributing to IndigiNews and Global Okanagan. I shared with them what it means to me to tell these impactful stories as a member of Penticton Indian Band (PIB).

Another of the mentors, Whitney Cardenas, is also a member of PIB and works for the nation’s fire department. She told me that before she became a firefighter, attended a similar career fair to explore different job paths.

Now, she is eager to encourage the next generation of Indigenous Youth who are trying to decide which career path to choose.

“I’m pretty proud of myself to be named as one of the Indigenous role models, and I’m excited to talk to the Youth and tell them why I do what I do,” said Cardenas.

“I’m here to help encourage them to know that there are options out there and how easy it is to get into these careers and how they can make a living.”

Students at SD67’s Indigenous Career Fair at Princess Margaret Secondary School on Nov 16. Photo by Athena Bonneau

As a mother of two young children, Cardenas shared her passion for building a sense of community, emphasizing the importance of involving youth in trades for real-world experience. 

“I never saw myself in this position with the fire brigade but I love it. I feel it’s something that I’m going to continue doing for a long while,” said Cardenas.

Cardenas encouraged Youth who may be interested in the trades to “come as you are and experience it firsthand” — embodying the inclusive and supportive spirit at the heart of the Indigenous Career Fair.

Dustin Hyde, the District Principal of Indigenous Education and Equity for SD67, highlighted the importance of broad representation of Indigenous workers across different sectors at the event.

“There was a parent who said, ‘my daughter wants to study medicine’ and it would be wonderful if there was an Indigenous doctor here,” said Hyde, who is Métis.

“We plan to broaden our role models next year and the hope and the dream would be that we just continue to offer more opportunities.”

Christy Tiessen, a member of the Indigenous Parent Group and organizer of the Career Fair, said the group will continue to meet monthly to find different ways to encourage Indigenous youth to see themselves in different career paths aside from only the traditional university route.

“If one kid walked out of here tonight and says, ‘I know what I want to do, that’s what I’m going to do’ and now they have a passion to move forward — that’s the goal,” said Tiessen.

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For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect




sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr., an 18-year-old syilx Youth from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, pictured at Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court on Nov. 3. Photo by Aaron Hemens

Just down the road from where sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr. grew up is one of his favourite safe spaces — the Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court.

The sport is more than just a means of keeping active or staying connected with his community — it’s his go-to coping mechanism to help navigate whatever challenges may present themselves. 

So whenever he needs to clear his mind and ground himself, the 18-year-old will head to outdoor facility in syilx homelands and spend time shooting hoops. 

“Whenever I feel down or need to feel motivated, I’ll come out,” says Waardenburg Jr., who is a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band. 

“It allows me to get away from whatever I need, to create a space for myself.”

Waardenburg Jr. was raised by a community of basketball players. His family started Syilx Basketball long before he was born — some of his earliest memories are of him watching his older brother Treyton, his older cousins and his dad play.

In addition to Treyton, his favourites included local Syilx Basketball league legends Jesse Vissia and Skye Terbasket, with his mom even gifting him a poster of the latter for Christmas one year.

“I always liked to watch and analyze more than I liked to play when I was younger. I was a little shy,” he recalled.

But Waardenburg Jr. was playing ball by the time he was five years old. Throughout his 13-year career, he’s generally played the point guard position, sometimes switching to shooting guard if needed. 

At one point, he also played competitive baseball, where his time as a pitcher taught him patience and how to keep himself calm.

“That helped me later on with basketball: being a point guard and calm on the floor, kind of leading,” he said.

Basketball has introduced him to a new world of different clubs, tournaments and communities throughout North America — he’s played with the Jr. Heat Boys Basketball Club, Okanagan Valley Elite, GW Hoops, the Similkameen Men’s team, and Syilx Basketball for both the Junior and regular All Native Basketball tournaments.

He’s also represented Team BC twice in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) — first in 2017, where the team placed second, and this past spring, where he was the starting point guard for the team, who finished third.

In 2022, he was part of the Syilx Basketball team that won the All Native Youth Basketball Tournament, which also saw him earn the MVP award. He competed again in this year’s Junior All Native, where he was the top scorer and was named an all-star, helping his team place second.

“Basketball allowed me to stay connected, especially to culture. With the All Native and with the Junior All Native, it brings you towards different tribes and bands,” he said.

A special highlight in his career was when he played with his older brother and his younger brother on a Men’s Similkameen Basketball team that his dad coached. 

“When you’re surrounded by friends and family, and they’re playing basketball, it just makes you realize how much you’re loved,” he said.

This past August, Waardenburg Jr. was named as one of three syilx Okanagan recent high school graduates to receive a Syilx Siya Bursary Award from the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), for demonstrating “a willingness to dream big for themselves, their Nation, their community, and/or their family.”

Applicants for the bursary award were tasked with writing about overcoming a difficult moment in their lives. In his application, he wrote about losing his cousins to mental health challenges and how sports — basketball in particular — helped him cope.

“I definitely believe sports help with mental health. I’ve seen it help me through the roughest times,” said Waardenburg Jr., who graduated from Mount Boucherie Secondary School.

He said while opening up about loss was difficult, he has worked through many of the emotions involved with the grieving process. 

“My two bros that I lost, they played a lot of basketball. I grew up playing with them,” he said.

Now, he is working his way through his first-year studies at Okanagan College’s business administration program. Waardenburg Jr. said he’s keen on promoting Indigenous sports more — he said he’d like to teach and coach other Indigenous Youth someday.

Speaking from his own experience, he encouraged those struggling with mental health to try and pick up a sport because you never know who you’ll meet that may help you down the road.

“It can also just make you realize that there’s more to life,” he said.

“Honestly, it could save someone.”

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Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc celebrates grand opening of on-reserve grocery store: ‘a source of pride’




The Sweláps Market features Secwépemc language and culturally-influenced architecture. Photo by Aaron Hemens

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) is celebrating a new community-owned grocery store that’s bringing food options and employment opportunities to the reserve. 

The grand opening for the new Sweláps Market is set to take place on Thursday at 11 a.m., and will include speeches and a ceremonial ribbon cutting. It will also feature week-long deals and prize draws, giveaways and food samples. 

The Sweláps Market is located in the Chief Louis Centre, and had its soft opening on Oct. 19.

The market is owned by TteS but is open to everyone. The store displays signs in Secwepemctsín (Secwépemc language) including a welcoming of Weyt-kp above the front door. 

The language also labels each department of the store such as q̓wlem (bakery) and ts̓i7 ell swewll (meat and fish). 

On the market’s website, each department is listed with audio files to hear the proper pronunciation.

Sweláps translates to “bighorn sheep” and the logo represents the sheep’s horn among the mountains and North and South Thompson rivers.

The 22,000-square-foot grocery store incorporates culture into the architecture, including a Secwépemc weaving design on the ceiling and a wooden ladder outside which resembles the entrance of a pithouse. 

After the ladder was carved on-site by Charles Dumont, the owner of Coyote Contracting and a TteS band member, and his son Ryder — a ceremony was held to bless the log as it was put into place. 

General manager Kara Stokes spoke about the importance of having a market in the community, given that, before now, the closest grocery store was off-reserve and across the river.

The vision for a band-owned grocery store goes back ten years, Stokes recalled, with multiple locations explored before settling on the Chief Louis Centre.

Before the store’s opening, Kúkwpi7 Rosanne Casimir expressed high hopes for the store’s impact.

“This project will bring food closer to home, create employment, and further strengthen our economy,” she said in a community statement. “It will be a source of pride as leadership is fully implementing a community driven opportunity.” 

Before opening, the public was kept up to date through updates and upcoming events listed on the market’s website.

A members-only job fair was held in September to give band members a chance to explore the job opportunities before opening it up to the public.

Between full-time and part-time job openings, the market employs a total of 65 people in management and frontline positions.

Stokes explained that the job openings are a helpful addition for TteS. 

“That opens up the opportunity for a lot of people who live in the area to be able to work in the area,” she said.

Since the store opened to the public last month, Stokes said she has served customers of all ages and varying family sizes. The market is currently open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.

“Everybody’s been coming in and shopping and it’s really amazing to see the support from the community to be able to provide this service,” she said.

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