Labrador Inuit dialect classes at MUN key to language's survival, says student and professor

Susan Onalik, a student from Makkovik, says she doesn't want to take French to satisfy her language requirement for graduation.

Two courses could be offered in the fall

Susan Onalik dropped her French class in favour of studying her traditional language, Inuttut. (Submitted/Facebook)

For many degrees at Memorial University, language credits are required for graduation — and some students are choosing to learn Inuttut in order to meet those requirements.

It was two years ago that the courses in the Labrador dialect of the Inuit language were offered at Newfoundland and Labrador's only university.

Susan Onalik, a student from Makkovik, sent a letter, along with over 100 signatures of support, to the university requesting Inuttut be taught as a language credit course this calendar year.

"I went to my first French class and it's not something that I felt comfortable in and I actually cried thinking about how difficult learning French was going to be for me," Onalik said.

"That kind of pushed me further again to advocate for it to be taught."

Onalik, along with others, has since dropped the French course in anticipation of the fall linguistics course offerings.

She hopes the Indigenous language will enrich all aspects of the university.

Makkovik's Susan Onalik collected over 100 signatures on a letter to the university requesting Inuttut be offered as a language credit course this year. (Submitted/Facebook )

"Having diversity on campus ensures safety and exploring multiple perspectives," she said.

"Indigenous languages, Inuttut specifically, being offered in the fall would not only help non-Indigenous or non-Inuk students be more aware of the culture and language and traditions, and all those things that accompany the course, but there's also going to be an elder in class."

To teach the course, a first-language speaker will join professor Doug Wharram.

The PhD is with the university's linguistics department in St. John's. He's been working with Indigenous communities in Labrador since 2004.

"There is a lot of interest in making sure that the language survives. It's critical to the preservation of culture and identity," Wharram said.

"It's part of culture and it's the way by which culture gets transmitted from from generation to generation and across geographical space, it makes a very compelling case."

Dr. Doug Wharram is a linguistics professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. (John Gaudi/CBC)

For the linguistics department, it's not a hard sell to have a commitment to collaborate with speakers of Indigenous languages. For Wharram it's a baby step towards more substantive changes the university could make.

[Language is] critical to the preservation of culture and identity.- Douglas Wharram, MUN linguistics professor

"I think maybe we're just at the point where we are acknowledging that a lot needs to change and we have to figure out by working with people what those changes need to look like," he said.

Provided a first-language speaker is available to help teach alongside Wharram, the courses will be listed as LING 2025 and LING 2026 in the fall.

Onalik is hopeful the support will be found and the classes go ahead.

"I think bridging that gap between academia and community really speaks to the values that Indigenous or First Nations or Inuit need to have in regard to looking at Western knowledge and traditional knowledge and being able to bring those two aspects together."

Catharyn Andersen, special advisor on Aboriginal affairs for MUN's president, hopes this is just one step towards further Indigenization at the university. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

Memorial University's Indigenous advisor Catharyn Andersen hopes the provinces two other Indigenous languages, Innu-Aimun and the Mi'kmaq language could also become available in the future.

"I think that would have to be something that we would need to work with communities on moving forward, but again, I think as the only university in this province with and where we have three Indigenous languages of this province that would certainly be something that I would like to see happen at the university."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that it had been a decade since the Inuttut classes had been offered at MUN. They were last offered in 2017.
    Feb 21, 2019 1:53 PM NT