For the first time, deaf Inuit followed proceedings in the Nunavut legislative assembly Tuesday, thanks to interpreters who translated the debates into a new Inuit sign language that is in the process of being documented.
Interpreters also provided American Sign Language interpretation to deaf Nunavut residents, who came to Iqaluit from across the territory this week to learn about new Inuit sign language (ISL) resources.
"He had a hard time talking to other people because he only knows Inuktitut sign language," Geetee Maniapik told reporters outside the assembly Tuesday, while interpreting for Yvo Sammugshak, a deaf Rankin Inlet resident and hunter who communicates using the personal sign language he had learned from his parents.
Maniapik said she grew up using a similar form of sign language so she could communicate with her deaf sister in Pangnirtung.
But she said she was surprised to learn that other deaf Inuit across Nunavut share many of the same hand signals in their own sign languages.
"They're very similar, although we have different dialects. That's the only difference," she said. "A lot of these Inuktitut signings are the same."
There are about 155 to 200 deaf people in Nunavut. While many of them learned American Sign Language in southern schools, deaf Inuit who don't know ASL tend to communicate with a combination of hand signals, body language and facial expressions that they have developed with family members and the people around them.
Sammugshak, Maniapik and her sister are now part of an ongoing project by McGill University psychology professor Jamie MacDougall to document ISL and provide more services for deaf Nunavummiut.
"Here in Nunavut, deaf people are accepted by their families and by their friends, and people can communicate with them," MacDougall told the assembly.
"This is very special in all of Canada. We have something to teach Canada from Nunavut."
MacDougall launched the ISL project several years ago after his research led him to conclude that a traditional Inuit form of sign language was widespread across Nunavut.
This week, his group released an ISL glossary, brochure and poster showing Inuit signs.
"And then we've got to find a way to start actually training interpreters and so on. So that will involve probably Arctic College ... the education system and so on," MacDougall said.
"That's going to be the main challenge. What they've all said is they're interested, but where's the material?"
Eventually, MacDougall said he would like to see certified ISL interpreters providing government services to deaf Inuit.