Thompson Rivers University

Connecting with words

June 18, 2021

There is power in words. Thompson Rivers University President Brett Fairbairn understood this when, in 2019, he embarked on a regional community consultation to create a new vision and goals for the university.

Comments from the consultation were compiled and within a year, TRU’s new, 10-year vision was created. It centered around a Secwépemc word that embodied the vision of TRU’s role in the region.

Community-minded with a global conscience, we boldly redefine the university as a place of belonging — Kw’seltktnéws, we are all related and interconnected with nature, each other and all things — where all people are empowered to transform themselves, their communities, and the world.

Fairbairn sought to get the Vision Statement, encompassing TRU’s vision, mission, values and goals, translated into Secwepemctsín, the language of the Secwépemc People, to strengthen and honour relationships with the Indigenous communities served by TRU and to build better understanding among everyone within the university community.

TRU President Brett Fairbairn during the consultation where Kw’seltktnéws was brought forward as a central theme to the university’s Vision Statement.

“Our vision is one of relationship and belonging. This vision is inspired by the people of these lands, by the Secwépemc language and belief system, and by the lands themselves. It is a vision that reflects deep insights into the nature of learning, insights from which all of us can benefit. Respect for all is the foundation of a learning community where people develop themselves in interaction with and support from others,” said Fairbairn.

“A sense of connection is what leads us to take action locally and within our sphere of responsibilities, whether this is about working to improve communities, ensure sustainability, build intercultural understanding or the even harder work of truth and reconciliation. Secwepemctsín is the original and authentic way to express these ideas that we have made central to our vision as a university.”

The translation began with Airini, then dean of Education and Social Work, bringing in Garry Gottfriedson, a member of Tk’emlups te Secwépemc, poet and Secwépemc Cultural Advisor to the dean of the Faculty of Education and Social Work. He was asked to review the Vision Statement and provide Secwépemc concepts.

Deepening understanding

“The purpose of translating the Vision Statement for TRU, was to provide the president, provost, and all members of the TRU community with a greater and deeper understanding of Secwépemc worldview, since TRU is situated directly within the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) territory. As part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls for Action, TRU is in a position to ultimately show respect for the ‘host house’ and ensure that meaningful measures are taken to put words into action,” Garry Gottfriedson said.

He brought in his nephew, Ted Gottfriedson, who is TteS Language and Culture Department manager, to oversee the process.

“We had a meeting where Brett met with the Elders. He wanted to express his gratitude. He was very humble when he was doing this with our Elders’ group. They are a group of fluid speakers — all Secwepemctsín first-language speakers, which is very, very rare,” said Ted Gottfriedson.

The Fluent Elders came from several area Secwépemc communities —TteS, Simpcw, Bonaparte and Skeetchestn — and included Daniel Calhoun, Leona Calhoun, Marie Antione, Flora Sampson, Mona Jules, Bill Pete, Garlene Jules, Charli Fortier, Garry and Ted Gottfriedson and Jessica Arnouse.

The Fluent Elders group is known as Wumecwílc re Secwepemctsín. It means bringing the Secwépemc language back to life.

Especially now, this translation project has meaningful significance, Ted Gottfriedson said.

“For these folks to come together and speak a language for which they were forbidden to speak as children. . . . I spent my adult life trying to learn Secwépemc. I had to do it as an adult, because my grandmother, who is a fluent speaker, wouldn’t teach me. As a residential school survivor, she wouldn’t teach my mom, and she wouldn’t teach me,” he said.

“After all those years in residential school, to have people who can speak the language is super rare. Then to have those people who can speak it actually share the language and want to speak it, is super rare among that super rare group.

“For example, we have two speakers in our community. One, for her own personal reasons, refuses to share the language, to speak the language. Those are issues she has to carry with her. Those are from her childhood.”

Ancient language meets high tech

Soon after the group was established, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down face-to-face meetings. Most Elders didn’t have computers, so iPads were provided to them and family members helped them.

That technological connection proved to benefit not just the project, but the Elders themselves, as they were able to see others during a time of isolation.

Gottfriedson said he and the younger people involved in the project had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with front-row seats as the Elders translated the Vision Statement’s concepts and views into an ancient language.

The Elders were equally as enthusiastic.

“They’re quite excited that people are interested. It’s important to them for people to hear the language. It’s important to them to pass it on.”

The biggest challenge was translating an English Vision Statement into a written form of an old, traditionally oral language. The Elders had to think about which words to use, and drew from each others’ perspectives.

“This document also offers students rich insights into the strength, resilience and beauty of the Secwépemc land and people.”

Garry Gottfriedson

Sometimes the Elders would just tackle one sentence. Sometimes they would have to translate a concept rather than words, because of context. It was quite the long and slow process. While there were many revisions, the Elders reached a consensus, he said.

“Things like this help our language preservation. Our elders have to try to conceptualize ideas that are foreign, really not a part of everyday vernacular, and for us to be able to document that, is pretty cool. It helps in our goal of language revitalization.”

He is hopeful the vision project will lead to more understanding.

“For non-native folks, I hope this creates an interest in our language, in our culture, in our very being in this area.”

The translations are posted on the TRU website along with an audio clip that provides pronunciation. It’s a step in building cultural understanding and strengthening TRU’s relationship with the Secwépemc Nation.

“It ensures that this document has life because Secwepemctsín is a living language, not meant to be dormant. This also demonstrates that TRU is actively moving away from discussions about TRC Call for Actions and illustrating that they are doing it,” said Garry Gottfriedson.

“This document also offers students rich insights into the strength, resilience and beauty of the Secwépemc land and people.”

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