At 60 years old, many people are surprised when Glenn Reece tells them he is still a student.
“I tell them what I’m trying to learn, and I say you’re more than welcome to come and join me,” Reece said. “That’s what I’m hoping, one day somebody will — even more than one. The more the merrier, and the better off our language will be. Not only the language, but the culture.”
For the last 16 years, Reece has been taking Sm’algyax classes in Prince Rupert.
He always wanted to learn the language. His father, who knew how to speak Sm’algyax, was always away fishing or logging and gone from home for long stretches of time. Reece’s mother knows the language, but lost the ability to speak it when it was forbidden in residential school. So when Reece found out adult classes were offered in Rupert, he signed up.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said. “It was kind of scary because you don’t want to say something wrong, but I was lucky my teachers are really good about that. They said if you say something wrong, over time you will notice and you will know how to say it. It got better. I can’t say it got easier, but I enjoy it.”
The Sm’algyax language is very complex. It doesn’t use seven of the letters found in the English alphabet, and words often change their endings depending on the context they’re used in.
Twice a week, Reece will attend class. Over the summer break, before the classes pick up again in the fall, he’ll keep practising with the help of his family. His brother-in-law can speak Sm’algyax, and the two of them will talk on the phone to practice. Reece’s mother will help him where she can when he’s working on his homework.
When he’s not taking classes, Reece works in sales at SeaSport in Prince Rupert, where he’s worked for 38 years. After spending his childhood in Lax K’walaams, Reece has mostly lived in Rupert.
“When the weather’s nice like today, you can’t beat it anywhere,” he said with a smile.
The rest of Reece’s time is spent at the gym or volunteering. For the past four years, Reece has been the only man volunteering with the hospital auxiliary. He’ll help out in the gift bar on weekends and every Christmas he brings presents to the elders at Acropolis Manor.
“They’re alone. For me, it makes me feel good because they have something to open on Christmas morning and somebody’s caring for them,” Reece said, adding that he hopes more men will be inspired to lend a helping hand.
“I guess I’m kind of blazing the trail for other guys to join,” he said with a chuckle.
After the Christmas season, it’s time to hang out at the hoops. Reece has volunteered with the women’s Metlakatla basketball team for 15 years, a position he was called in off the bench for. The players asked him to be their coach after he showed support — in the shape of oranges — during their practices. He knew plenty about the game at that point. Despite not playing much himself, Reece volunteered for the All Native Basketball Tournament for 30 years.
“I enjoy all the people I’ve met throughout the years from all the different villages. I go now and sometimes I don’t even watch the game because I’m busy visiting with somebody.”
The 60-year-old student also helps the next generation. At the most recent graduation ceremony in Prince Rupert, he helped pass out bursaries from the hospital auxiliary. It feels good, he said, to be able to help someone who needs it.
“I hope these kids will do quite well in their education because they’ve finished one small part of their education and they have more to go,” he said. He’s speaking from experience.
Through the 16 years of classes he’s taken with elder and fluent speaker Alex Campbell, Reece has learned more about his own family. Campbell, who is known for his talented storytelling, shared stories of Reece’s grandfather and mother, talking about the cabin they lived in along the Skeena River and the trapping they did.
“I was pretty proud,” he said of hearing his family’s stories in class. “I did hear some of the stories from my mom, but not all of them. It was nice to hear even more.”
His mom thinks it’s great he’s taken on learning the language.
“On my aunt and uncle’s 50th anniversary, I made a speech in the Sm’algyax language. She didn’t know I was going to do it, so she was quite happy that I’m progressing in the language. It’s getting there. It’s not there yet, but I’m going to continue on until I can’t.”
Learning Sm’algyax often means learning stories, some of which are thousands of years old. They tell the history of a place or where something got its name, so it’s never just a language lesson.
“It’s part of who we are. It’s part of our culture. Growing up, I’m paying more and more attention to my mom helping me. In time, I’m going to receive the name that my uncle is using now, because he is our house speaker,” Reece said.
“It’s a part of our culture and that’s what I want to continue on with, so the culture continues.
“It’s hard to explain our culture. It’s thousands of years old, the laws and the stories. That’s what I want to learn, and I have a lot to learn.”