A proactive young local has churned the change he wanted to see at his school.
Timmy Masso is a 13 year-old Grade 8 student at Ucluelet Secondary School who’s putting some early teaching experience under his belt to bring local language to his classmates.
USS students have the option of taking a Nuu-chah-nulth class instead of French. Masso chose Nuu-chah-nulth but was quickly disappointed to see the class’ curriculum offer little in terms of language-learning so he decided to take over the teacher’s role. His efforts gained mass media coverage after an impromptu speech he gave at an Oct. 24 Assembly of First Nations meeting in Victoria.
Masso had attended the meeting to support his brother Hjlamer who was stepping down as the AFN’s B.C. youth representative but, when he heard Canada’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett tout her government’s efforts to bring First Nation language and culture to schools, he felt the need to speak out.
“Timmy started just squirming, he wanted to talk so badly,” his mother Jessie told the Westerly News.
Masso got a chance to speak and took the opportunity to drop a reality check on the meeting’s attendees, letting them know Nuu-chah-nulth was only being taught in his school because he was teaching it.
“He just burst into tears talking about it,” his mother Jessie told the Westerly News. “It was so emotional. All the chiefs were in tears. Everybody could feel his pain and, when he finished, they all clapped.”
Masso, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, said it was important to him to have his voice heard.
“I said the truth about how the language isn’t really in the school and how the first couple of weeks we were just picking berries,” Masso said.
He said his Nuu-chah-nulth class had spent the first two weeks picking berries, which disappeared three weeks in without being used or eaten by the students. Discouraged, he spoke to his mother about what had happened and she suggested he ask to teach the class himself.
His teacher obliged and Masso said he kicked off his new curriculum about three weeks ago by focusing on the Nuu-chah-nulth alphabet.
“All the kids are getting into it,” he said.
“I want to do the alphabet and then I want to slowly go into root words.”
He said it is important for the language to be taught because it offers an important connection to local students.
“It connects you to the land,” he said.
“If you learn the language of the area that you’re in, you feel more connected to the area that you’re in.”
He added he plans to teach the class until an elder can be brought in to take over.
“Then I’ll be the student,” he said.
“I want to see an elder in the school. And, not just in this school, I want to see an elder in most schools.”
He said Bennet approached him after his speech and promised to work with him to improve First Nations’ language offerings.
“I was very impressed,” he said. “She said she wants to help me move the language forward.”
Jessie said she hopes Bennet follows through.
“I’d be really proud of her if she pulls it off,” she said adding Timmy needs a teacher.
“It’s great that he’s getting attention, but he has to learn himself too. He needs a teacher to teach him.”
USS principal Carol Sedgwick told the Westerly the school wants to offer more language lessons but is having a hard time finding locals who speak Nuu-chah-nulth well enough to teach it.
“If I had a magic wand and had somebody who was a certified teacher who spoke Nuu chah nulth like Madame Vigneault speaks French, that would be like a dream,” she said. “But, right now, I just have some really dedicated staff who really care about these kids and want to see them be successful in school. So, they're trying to provide a program that will help encourage these kids to learn a bit about culture and language and really have a positive experience being in our building.”
Sedgwick said the Nuu-chah-nulth class' curriculum was designed by B.C.'s ministry of education and USS staffers are doing the best they can with the resources they have.
“They're really putting in a big effort because they recognize the importance of it...We're just really struggling to get actual speakers in to assist with the program,” she said.
“I totally understand the frustration with Timmy and his family that it's not necessarily the traditional language class in the sense you would have Spanish or French, we just need more language speakers who want to come and be part of this group.”
She added the school has funding available.
“We have funding and we can find more funding for that sort of thing. We don't expect our elders to come in here and just do that sort of thing for free,” she said. “The Tribal Council and SD70 set aside funds for us to bring in experts in the area of culture whether it be weaving or carving or language.”
Sedgwick noted longtime West Coaster and beloved local educator Barbara Touchie played a vital role in Nuu-chah-nulth education at the school before passing away in 2014.
“It's left a big gap...We're really struggling, especially with late Grandma Barb's passing, to get fluent or even semi-fluent speakers to be part of our program,” she said.
“I really worry, myself at a personal level, for the language because there are so few fluent speakers left...I need people who want to come and work with our kids who actually can speak the language.”
She commended Masso for trying to be part of the solution.
“I think it's awesome that he has such a passion for his own language and his culture and that he's recognized that he could be part of preserving it,” she said. “That doesn't mean we haven't continued to try and seek out our language speakers to come and spend some time with our kids.”
Any Nuu-chah-nulth speakers interested in sharing their knowledge should reach out to the school at 250-726-7796 or firstname.lastname@example.org.