Canada 2017·Sorry Stories

Elisapie Isaac on learning how to say 'sorry' in Inuktitut

For Inuk singer-songwriter Elisapie Isaac saying sorry was something she learned through motherhood. (Plus: learn to pronounce "ilaaniungituq.")

'I never learned to say sorry because I was never taught to say sorry.'

Singer-songwriter Elisapie Isaac teaches us to say sorry in Inuktitut. 0:20

Canadians and "sorry": it's the ultimate national cliché. But in a country filled with so many languages and cultures, there's more than one way to apologize. In this first edition of our series How to say sorry in Canada, Inuk singer Elisapie Isaac reflects on growing up without saying sorry — and learning how to apologize to her daughter.

There is a word for "sorry" in Inuktitut, the way we say it in Nunavik: ᐃᓛᓂᐅᖕᖏᑐᖅ (ilaaniungituq).

But we rarely use it. We say sorry, or ask for forgiveness, not so much in words, but through our silent gestures and our actions reflecting kindness.

How to say "sorry" in Canada: Inuktitut edition

  • the word: ᐃᓛᓂᐅᖕᖏᑐᖅ (ilaaniungituq)
  • pronounciation: ee - LA - nyu - nee - tuk
  • rough translation: "I didn't mean to"

Growing up fast

I grew up in Saluit, in Nunavik. I was adopted. It was very common up in the North. If someone couldn't have a child, you had to find a way for your family to survive; and when kids had children without being married, their babies would be given to those people. My mother did not have a husband. She fell in love with a boy from Newfoundland, who was working for Hudson's Bay Company. My grandmother told her before I was born: It's best you give your child to your father's cousin. My mother followed her advice and I was given to my grandfather's cousin.

I loved my adopted parents. I didn't have a bad childhood, but some things weren't great. My mother had big time gambling issues. Some days we had food, next day we didn't — for like a week. My parents didn't beat me or anything. But if you think about a child who is worried if there will be food or not, it makes you alert all the time.

Many times our house was the gambling den. On the one hand, I remember feeling this is really not cool. At the same time, I grew up with people always around me. I would fall asleep with the noise. It was like having a sense of security. My parents probably didn't realize they were doing anything wrong. But I grew up quickly and that's also common in the North.

My parents have passed away now and it's important me to remember them as wonderful parents, who were not perfect. It's taken me a lot of time to come to terms with that. I never said anything to my parents and they never said sorry to me. I have had to find a way to make peace with that.

Learning to say 'sorry'

So I never learned to say sorry because I was never taught to say sorry. With my own kids, I have learned to say sorry. I am sorry I overreacted, I am sorry I snapped at you. It's about learning to acknowledge I have been weak, I have been unfair, and it's very hard. It's definitely something our parents didn't teach us. I think it's also a generational thing. Young people say sorry much more easily.

It's about learning to acknowledge I have been weak, I have been unfair, and it's very hard.- Elisapie Isaac

For example, with my daughter, when she met my new boyfriend, she was immediately resistant. It lasted for a long time. I was pregnant, and tired, and I couldn't figure it out. What was wrong? My therapist helped me realize that I am making her feel insecure, that my daughter had also gone through a breakup of her own. I had to come to terms with that, and learn to say I am sorry. It was a big release and a relief. The other day we were in the car, and out of the blue I said sorry to her. I told her it's not cool having parents who separate, I wouldn't have wanted to go through with it. She was like, "Oh mom. It's OK. I have two birthdays in two houses."

The Inuktitut word is "ilaaniungituq." I means I didn't mean to.

If I think about it more, there is this larger issue of Canadians needing to reconcile with Indigenous people, saying sorry. Yes, we need to hear it because it's your vocabulary. But it's also about your actions. Rather than people feeling ashamed of their ancestors or the first settlers, or feeling like they owe us something, they should want to have real dialogue. There is a real possibility to reconcile, to say I am sorry. I think that's another word we have yet to find.

How to say sorry in Canada is a CBC 2017 series that delves into the ways and languages we use to apologise. Do you have a sorry story? Email 2017@cbc.ca. 

About the Author

Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. She has been published in Canadian media including CBC, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and Walrus magazine. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com.