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To educate or not to educate the Inuit?

The Story

Industry, jobs and all things modern are springing up where a century ago there were only white stretches of land, animals and the Inuit people who lived off them. Both the federal government and the Inuit population see the changes coming. In this Northwest Territories parliamentary session, commissioner Gordon Robertson tells a CBC reporter about the options for forming a school system suited to the needs of the scattered Inuit population. To bridge the gap between the hunting and trapping of yesterday and the growing industry of today, the government is assimilating the Inuit population. Inuit students will be taught the modern way of life of the new Canadian population. The other topic on this meeting's agenda is whether or not to give the Inuit access to alcohol. With a population's future in his hands, Robertson notes the magnitude of the government's role. "If a council makes a mistake, it could be irretrievable."

Medium: Television
Program: CBC Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: Jan. 20, 1957
Guest: Gordon Robertson
Duration: 4:17

Did You know?

• The Inuit live in vast areas of the Canadian North including Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, northern Labrador and northern Quebec. The ancestors of the modern-day Inuit arrived about 1050 AD.

• The Canadian government recognizes three distinct groups of Indigenous people: the Inuit, Métis and First Nations. Each group has fought its own unique battle with the Canadian government and has a different social, legal and economic history.

• Before the Second World War, the government had a "hands-off" approach to the Inuit people in Canada's northern regions. No nationwide system of education was in place, though church-run (and government funded) residential schools were common in some parts of the Northwest Territories.

• In 1906, an annual report submitted to Parliament stated that pupils were "disposed to be more teachable and less difficult to manage than an equal number of white children, when they are removed from all intercourse with relatives," and "make fair progress, though necessarily somewhat slow, because of their total ignorance of the English language." - Principal of a residential school in Hay River, NWT.

• "Inuit" means "people," in Inuktitut. The Inuit were referred to as Eskimos until the later part of the 20th century, a word now considered derogatory. Some linguists believe the word Eskimo refers to the manner of lacing a snowshoe, while others believe it means "eaters of raw meat."

• Alcohol access was granted. The resulting alcohol abuse and fetal alcohol syndrome continue to plague Inuit society.

• Two events brought formal education to the North. The first was the 1939 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that the Inuit were a federal responsibility, in Re Eskimos (1939) R.C.S. 104), which prompted a 1955 cabinet submission suggesting a general system of education for all northern people. The second was the further development of the "strategic" North after the war, including an airport in Frobisher Bay and the construction of the DEW line of radar installations.


An Inuit Education: Honouring a Past, Creating a Future more