Nunavut parents call bilingual education 'infuriating' at public meeting

The Nunavut government wrapped up its public consultation on education reforms last week. Some parents say it's going in the wrong direction.

'In my daughter's Grade 8 Inuktitut class, they pulled the janitor in to teach,' said Sandra Inutiq

Sandra Inutiq, a former languages commissioner, was one of several frustrated parents, educators and concerned community members who spoke at a public consultation Friday on proposed changes to the Education Act. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

Sandra Inutiq says she's all but given up on the idea that her children will learn Inuktitut in school.

"In my daughter's Grade 8 Inuktitut class, they pulled the janitor in to teach." 

Inutiq, the territory's former languages commissioner, was one of several parents, educators and concerned community members to take part in the final public consultation meeting on education reforms in Apex on Friday. The government has been gathering public feedback on proposed changes to the territory's 2008 Education Act after a review in 2015 led to some dramatic recommendations.  

Inutiq was one of several who think the department isn't doing enough to support language learning in the classroom. 

'Patchwork' approach to language

Inutiq says the "patchwork" approach to teaching Inuktitut gives students the message that their language is not important, and erodes their self-esteem and sense of cultural identity.

"How can we talk about bilingual education when we don't... have an aggressive approach to developing teachers that can instruct?" she asked. 

'How are we sending the message to my son that Inuktitut is just as important when the instruction he receives is less than what he receives in English,' said Inutiq at Friday's meeting. (CBC)
"How are we sending the message to my son that Inuktitut is just as important when the instruction he receives is less than what he receives in English?"

According to Inutiq, the problem is not only a lack of trained teachers. It's also a lack of effort by the government to give teachers the support they need.

"My son's kindergarten... class consisted of kids who only spoke Inuktitut, kids who spoke both, kids who didn't speak, and disabled kids. Imagine the pressure the teacher is under of dealing with these scenarios and the demands of each of these groups."

Inutiq said the situation — as well as a host of other tasks Inuit teachers have to take on, like "developing curriculum and having to translate the newsletters" — makes it extremely difficult to retain the limited number of trained teachers the department does employ.

'It’s infuriating to see teachers still having to develop their own handwritten materials night after night,' says Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril echoed Inutiq's frustration. 

"It's infuriating to see teachers still having to develop their own handwritten materials, night after night."

She also said the government is not doing enough to make sure students are getting the instruction they need.

"When you have a limited number of Inuit teachers, you can multiply the effect by using videos, and language podcasts.

"There is no excuse… to not have Inuktitut taught properly in every school."

New model, new outcomes, says government

The department of education says the proposed reforms will help address those problems.

It wants to do away with the three models of bilingual education it currently offers, from which District Education Authorities can choose, in favor of a single, standardized framework to help better manage the shortage of Inuit-language speaking teachers.

The standardized framework would be the responsibility of the minister, who would have the authority to direct the amount of instruction time required for each grade and the authority to provide direction on which language of instruction would be used for each subject. 

According to the government, the proposed change will help it determine exactly how many teachers are required, and which grades and schools need Inuit educators the most.

At earlier grades, and in some communities, the percentage of courses and subjects taught in Inuktitut will be higher.

The government hopes that as more Inuktitut-speaking teachers are trained, it will be able to offer a higher percentage of instruction time in Inuktitut.

It also says a standardized framework will make it easier to develop Inuit teaching resources and teacher training material — making it easier to train new teachers and support existing ones.

A separate model would be developed for Inuinnaqtun.

'The top issue for me is colonialism'

Both Inutiq and Arnaquq-Baril say the problems with bilingual education run deep, and can't be fixed by merely changing the framework for delivery.

"The top issue for me is colonialism. Until the government deals with the issue of colonialism, you're not going to get anywhere fast," said Inutiq.

Inutiq cited her experience with the school system in Iqaluit, arguing that students can't be expected to learn the language when the dominant language in both school and the workplace is English. 

Arnaquq-Baril also blames a lack of initiative on the part of the Nunavut government.

"To say that it's because we just have a shortage of teachers is not true, it's not just that," she said. "It's because the department [of education] has not prioritized hiring Inuit, and not put a focus on developing Inuit content."

Both women say the government also needs to address the lack of trained Inuit principals and high-level education bureaucrats.

The government says it's working with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. on its Inuit employment strategy, and trying to get more Inuit into managerial and policy development positions, and that the department of education would be obliged to consult with District Education Authorities and the public on the standardized framework. 

MLAs are expected to review the proposed legislation in February. If passed, the government will start implementing changes in 2017.