Will territorial, national and international outcry spur governments to language and education action in Nunavut?

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A group of Nunavummiut, along with Canadian and international scholars, released an open letter to the world’s language commissioners gathering in Toronto today, asking for their help in addressing the language setbacks in Nunavut.

“Two weeks ago, in a shocking move, Nunavut’s territorial public government announced legislation to roll back Inuktut education rights until 2039. This would never have been done if Canada protected Inuktut. It would never be done to French education in Nunavut,” states the letter.

Read: Open letter to the world’s language commissioners

Filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, recently invested into the Order of Nunavut and known for being a champion of Inuktitut, has signed an open letter to the world’s language commissioners. The letter is a call to the Canadian government that it recognize Inuktut as a majority language in Nunavut.
photo courtesy Michel Albert

Law student Lori Idlout, filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, Inuit-language specialist and human rights advocate Jay Arnakak, University of Prince Edward Island PhD student Naullaq Arnaquq, and Arviat Aqqiumavvik Society directors May Baker and Shirley Tagalik signed the letter.

Other signatories include language and education experts from across Canada, as well as in Greenland, Germany, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the US.

They are all calling on the Canadian government to “modernize its Official Languages Act to protect and support Inuktut, the voice of Nunavut.”

Idlout, who is scheduled for her bar exam Thursday, told Nunavut News the letter is a good way to raise awareness about the challenges of retaining Inuktut in Nunavut within a country like Canada. (Idlout took her law degree at the University of Ottawa because she could not wait for the Government of Nunavut to offer a law degree for a second time.)

“As Inuit, our mother tongue has always been Inuktitut and our language has been declining so rapidly. It’s been a huge concern for many years. As much as we try to do, it’s not ever enough. There needs to be a political push to keep Inuktitut,” said Idlout.

“That political will just hasn’t been strong enough within the national scope, and I think that’s why it feels like such an injustice within Nunavut. As the letter describes, Inuktitut is supposed to be the majority language.”

Since the first census in Nunavut in 2001, Canada has classified the territory as majority English, minority French, and “other,” according to the news release accompanying the letter.

Minister of Education David Joanasie introduced Bill 25, An Act to Amend the Education Act and the Inuit Language Protection Act, to news organizations the morning of June 5.
NNSL file photo

As Nunavut’s legislative assembly shut down for the summer, Minister of Education David Joanasie tabled Bill 25, An Act to Amend the Education Act and the Inuit Language Protection Act, an attempt to correct the failures of Bill 37. Bill 37 was the previous government’s effort to delay the right of Inuit children to a bilingual education.

But Bill 25 would see Inuktitut bilingual education rolled out to all grades by 2039.

Read: GN continues history of failing Inuit children with Bill 25

A history of blaming parents

Idlout says her own mother, who attended residential school, was forbidden from speaking Inuktitut.

“She carried that, as a mother, to us, her children. For many years, she refused to speak Inuktitut to us,” said Idlout.

It was when the family moved to Iglulik, where Inuktitut was strong in the school, even up to the higher grades, and Inuit teachers taught in the classroom, that Idlout and her siblings began to translate for their mother. Idlout says the language was strong in Iglulik, and so were the Inuit teachers.

Even so, the education system failed Idlout’s own children as it deteriorated over the past 20 years.

“There is definitely a difference in my generation and my children’s generation,” Idlout said.

Premier Joe Savikataaq, who says his education was in English, urges parents to get their children to school in the morning.
photo courtesy Michel Albert

Premier Joe Savikataaq, in an interview for a separate story not yet published, stated his own education was “strictly only English.” And in response to a question about low attendance levels due to a current lack of Inuktut and Inuit role models in Nunavut classrooms, he said attendance was really high in his day.

“All the teachers were from the south. For the lower grades, they had Inuktitut speakers as classroom assistants … We went to school all the time. I missed very few days of school,” Savikataaq said.

“Nobody might want to hear it but I’ll just say it, the parents gotta wake up their kids in the morning and send them to school.”

But as Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. president Aluki Kotierk notes, this Government of Nunavut position, often repeated in 2017 and now stated again, blames parents.

“It blames Inuit parents rather than, as the leader of a system, acknowledging there is a systemic issue to address. And (he) uses himself as an example that ‘if I can be a success despite the system then other parents should push their children to be strong enough and resilient enough to be able to succeed despite the system,’” stated Kotierk by email.

“It made me think of the media article a while back where parents were being penalized and their social assistance was being held back because their children were absent from school. Kick people down when they are already down and blame them for not succeeding in a system that is not made for them.”

Kotierk was raised in Iglulik, where her classes in the earlier years were in Inuktitut, then switched to English in the later years. She grew up in a mixed household.

“The experience is most likely different for people who speak solely Inuktut at home that then have to transition to English in the later years,” she said.

“The system needs to do the best that it can to set it up to empower and create environments of success for Inuit that build Inuit up and support Inuit to be the best that they can be so that as Inuit we can all contribute in a positive fashion to our society.”

Idlout says Savikataaq may have had a great education in English where he was, but it doesn’t make it right to have that as a standard for other people.

“It doesn’t make it right, for other Inuit, to say, Oh, well, if our Premier who was Inuk had an English education … It doesn’t make it okay for our rights to be reduced,” Idlout said.

“It doesn’t make it right for our Inuit students to keep losing out on their education. We’re so lucky in Nunavut that we actually have a really good opportunity to have a good, even trilingual, education system. If French is going to be such an important language for all of Canada for all of its lifetime then Inuktitut needs to be the same priority in Nunavut.”

‘Actual action’ is needed

In the letter to the world’s language commissioners, the signatories recall when language laws were put into place:

“The OLA (Official Languages Act) was recommended by the 1968 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism to help ‘develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races’ of English and French. The Royal Commission noted: ‘we…will not examine the question of …the Eskimos… Since it is obvious that (they)… do not form part of the ‘founding races’”

This position continues today, despite rights embedded in the Nunavut Agreement, and thus Canadian legislation. The territorial and federal governments each have requirements.

“Canada’s Official Languages Act gives only two options for Nunavut: ‘provide
opportunities for members of English or French linguistic minority communities to be
educated in their own language.’ Not both,” states the letter.

“Canada contributes $1.4 million annually to a French language school in Iqaluit — for 90 students at one school; that’s equivalent to $15,555 each. How much money
does Canada transfer to Nunavut’s 42 other schools for Inuktut? Zero.”

Idlout would like to see, as a result of the letter, that Indigenous languages, no matter how many there are, be acknowledged.

“That they can be official languages in their regions,” she said.

And, at home in Nunavut, Idlout wants to see the territorial government reverse the Interim Language of Instruction Act, passed earlier this year in Nunavut’s legislative assembly.

That legislation is intended to keep the Government of Nunavut in compliance with the 2008 Education Act and Inuit Language Protection Act. It expires when Bill 25 is passed by MLAs or when Bill 25 is no longer on the order paper of the legislative assembly, at which point the July 1, 2019, deadline for Inuktut education comes back into effect.

“I would like Bill 25 to be rejected completely because it’s a question of Inuit language rights. I would like for the Government of Nunavut to listen to what Inuit are saying, what Inuit have been saying, that Inuktitut is so important. It’s a part of our culture. It’s a part of our identity,” said Idlout.

“We need actual action.”

As for Kotierk, she thinks the territory’s public government does not have the best interest of the public majority in the centre of the decisions that they make.

“This is illustrated by the NTEP review, this is illustrated by Bill 25,” she said.

Read: Leaked NTEP review concludes existing program doomed to fail

Nunavut News will continue to explore the implications of Bill 25 with Nunavummiut in the coming weeks.