CILLDI summer school moves online

Indigenous language training program finds new ways to connect with learners

Donna McKinnon - 18 June 2020

In continuation of their work to support, sustain and revitalize Indigenous language training, the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute (CILLDI) will be offering its courses online this summer.

In operation for more than two decades, CILLDI is Canada’s largest training program for speakers and learners of Indigenous languages. Its summer school attracts students from across western Canada, most of whom are Indigenous.

With the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering most in-person classrooms for the foreseeable future, the summer school would have suffered a similar fate if not for the concerted efforts of the program’s director Jordan Lachler, and his team.

“Although moving online presented new challenges, we reached out to all the students who had originally been planning on coming to our in-person summer school this year, and we got a positive response,” says Lachler. “That gave us the confidence to move ahead with offering the courses online. Our instructors also stepped up and answered the call to teach their courses in this new way. It's that commitment from both our students and instructors that makes the Summer School possible every year, and all the more so this year.”

Co-founded by linguist Sally Rice over 20 years ago, CILLDI has become an extraordinary example of how individually and collaboratively, three University of Alberta faculties — Arts, Native Studies, and Education, as well as the wider community of Indigenous speakers, educators and advocates — contribute in meaningful ways to the preservation of Indigenous languages.  

Lachler says that it was important to try to offer the summer school online because language endangerment is pervasive and ongoing, just as it was before the pandemic.

“Community efforts toward language revitalization need to be supported now as much as ever.”

Accessibility to training has always been a goal for CILLDI says Lachler, adding that online learning creates the possibility for more people to attend the summer program, particularly those who previously were not able to come to Edmonton for three weeks in July.

The summer school will be running through the summer term, July 6 to August 12, with a total of eight courses offered and around 70 students from across western and northern Canada.

One of these courses is an introductory Cree course taught by Dorothy Thunder, an instructor with Native Studies. “Since it is online this year, it's a great opportunity for all faculty and staff here at the U of A to learn some basic Cree from an amazing instructor, right from their own homes!” says Lachler.

Another positive result of the online format is that CILLDI has been able to offer a larger number of bursaries this year, repurposed from funds set aside for student housing, the banquet, and other expenses that can now be put back into tuition bursaries for more students.

Behind the scenes, there are 13 VeSPAs (Volunteer Summer Program Assistants) who are helping out with the courses and will be coordinating some of the virtual social events. One of these coordinators, Erin Hashimoto, is a recent graduate of the linguistics program, and like everyone in CILLDI, is passionate about the preservation of Indigenous languages.

“The summer school is always such a highlight because it brings language speakers and learners from all over together to share their stories, experiences, and goals with other people,” says Hashimoto. “There will be new challenges trying to create the same sense of togetherness remotely, but it’s exciting to think about the different ways we can connect despite everyone’s continued isolation.”

Lachler says the admin team in the CILLDI office, in Arts, Education, Native Studies and the Registrar's Office have been doing an “outstanding job as always” in helping to organize the online program.

“We will have a lot to learn from this experience,” he says. “I'm optimistic that we'll be able to make this year's online summer school just as rewarding and enjoyable for everyone as our regular summer school.”