• Gidin Jaad Erica Jean Ryan, right, runs through lines with an actor in Sgaawaay K’uuna, The Edge of the Knife, a Haida-language film that premieres next week at the Toronto International Film Festival.

    Gidin Jaad Erica Jean Ryan, right, runs through lines with an actor in Sgaawaay K’uuna, The Edge of the Knife, a Haida-language film that premieres next week at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy Haida Laas/Graham Richard)

Gidin Jaad Erica Jean Ryan plays the mother of a lead character in Sgaawaay K’uuna, The Edge of the Knife, the first-ever Haida-language feature film. Though she is not an actor by trade, Ryan saw being a part of the project, which will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next week, as an opportunity to share her passion for a language she has been learning for the past six years, Xaayda Kil, Haida southern dialect — her people’s language.

Ryan is one of a growing number of Indigenous people in B.C. who are reclaiming their languages through mentorship programs, formal classroom teaching, daycares and self-guided study made possible by online resources. According to a 2018 report on the status of Indigenous languages in B.C. from the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC), there are more than 13,900 language learners in the province, 2,000 more than the number reported in 2014. Moreover, three quarters of them are under the age of 25.

“Anything I know, I speak to my kids,” says Ryan. “We do a lot of singing, a lot of commands, physical response, intuition-based learning and just exposing them to what I can so that hopefully it will stick as they get older.”

For Ryan, the desire to learn her language came several years ago when a young woman and an elder came into her workplace, a café in Skidegate, speaking Xaayda Kil. Watching their conversation, “I was just blown away,” remembers Ryan.

“I just felt like the worst Haida ever, not having any language know-how. But at the same time, it was a really inspiring moment.”

Those café patrons happened to be part of the FPCC’s mentorship program, an initiative that pairs fluent Indigenous language speakers with  learners, one-on-one, so that the learner can experience daily life fully immersed in a language.

The one- to three-year partnership offers a way for mentors to pass on linguistic and cultural lessons to future knowledge-holders. Aliana Parker, FPCC language programs manager, says that approach is particularly effective when resources typically associated with language learning, such as dictionaries, formal classes, and language apps, are non-existent or tough to access.

Parker says the apprentices often go on to adopt teaching roles in their communities, taking the lessons they’ve learned into schools, preschools, daycares and other early learning programs.

The FPCC’s initiative has proved so popular that demand has often outpaced funding. Since it started in 2008, the mentor-apprentice program has supported between 10 and 14 new partnerships per year. But with new money coming from the B.C. government’s $50-million commitment to protect Indigenous languages over the next three years, this year the FPCC was able to fund 44 new mentor-apprentice pairs, in addition to 16 continuing teams from 2017. The newest participants were matched in June, and many have already completed over 100 hours of immersion work.

“This is just the start of it,” says Parker. “We’re looking at continuing to expand this program because it’s so effective and it really supports the mentor and the apprentice and creates ripple effects in the community that are are huge.”

With federal legislation to protect Indigenous languages in Canada expected this fall, Parker is hopeful that the continent’s original languages will gain some legal protection as well. But, she says, recognition of the languages is one thing; funding to revive them is another.

“There’s a desperate need for stable, adequate and sustained funding investment in the languages in order to continue with this really important revitalization work,” she says, “and then from there to be able to maintain the languages into the future.

“We hope [the federal bill] will require the government to provide long-term certainty in terms of funding towards protecting and revitalizing the Indigenous languages of Canada.”

‘The more I learn, the more I realize that it’s my responsibility to teach’

On Haida Gwaii, fluent speakers have been documenting, recording, and sharing the Haida language for 20 years through the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP).

After becoming pregnant with her first child, Ryan left her job at the café to work at SHIP as an IT assistant, helping to record and transcribe Haida words. With the consistent exposure, “the language just came really quickly,” she says. Hearing it helped her pronounce the sounds of Xaayda Kil and typing it out taught her to read the language as well; soon enough, she was hooked.

That was six years ago; now, Ryan will soon graduate from the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) as a certified Haida language teacher and will be able to take her skills into the public school system. She feels compelled to share what she has learned from SHIP and from her own experiences in the mentor-apprentice program.

“Something I’m learning is that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know,” she says. “At the same time, the more I learn, the more I realize that it’s my responsibility to teach.”

From her part-time job at the local credit union, to her parenting, to being on set of The Edge of the Knife, Ryan finds ways to speak, think and live in Haida.

“When I know that there is somebody else who is learning the language,” she says, “I really force myself and them to be in the language and to exist in the language and to use it and to commit to it.

“That’s huge; for me to go from knowing nothing to existing in it is really special.”

When The Edge of the Knife plays at a community screening on Haida Gwaii on Sept. 1, Ryan will be surrounded by friends and family; they will watch new Haida speakers live life in a language that she helped them learn on-set. And just as when she speaks Xaayda Kil at her job with fluent elders and classmates, Ryan hopes that others will be listening to the new words.

“Everytime we use it and we inspire the people around us to learn it themselves, that’s success.”

Related: How a B.C. First Nation is working to save their language from extinction