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Lack of Inuktut education in Nunavut constitutes 'cultural genocide,' says study

A study commissioned by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. claims that governments are practising 'cultural genocide' in regards to Inuktut education in the territory, saying that the territory's education system is failing in its efforts.

'It's on each of us,' says Nunavut's education minister, who says 10-year teacher recruitment plan in works

Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. A study commissioned by the organization is highlighting the failings in the territory's education system to deliver Inuktut education, saying it constitutes 'cultural genocide.' (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

A study commissioned by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. claims that governments are practising "cultural genocide" in regards to Inuktut education in the territory, saying that the territory's education system is failing in its efforts.

The study, written by linguistic researchers Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Robert Philippson and human rights lawyer Robert Dunbar, aims to identify underlying issues related to the decline of the use of Inuktut. 

Inuktut is the term for all Inuit languages, including Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun and Inuvialuktun, though Inuktitut is the dialect primarily used in Nunavut.

Statistics Canada reports show that while the use of Inuktut is increasing as a "secondary" language at home in Nunavut over the past two decades, it is decreasing as a "main" language.

"Inuit children receive the majority of their education in the dominant languages instead of their mother tongue," Aluki Kotierk, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., said in a release. "This constitutes cultural genocide."

Kotierk was measured in comments to CBC, saying that while she believes the government is not intentionally contributing to the decline of the language and has aspirations to create a fully bilingual education system — a goal set out in the territory's education act — it has been hampered by a number of factors, including not enough federal funding.

Students at a literacy program in the Nunavut hamlet of Whale Cove. The study states that only 11 schools in the territory have the capacity to deliver Inuktut-medium education to grade three, and just one school up to grade five. (Submitted by Nunavut Department of Education)

"I think it's a systemic issue," said Kotierk. "The history is that our residential schools existed where Indigenous children, including Inuit, were sent and learned English and were learning different ways of being. And I think the territorial public government has continued in that approach."

I think it's a systemic issue.- Aluki Kotierk, president, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

The report points out that as of 2016, there were 11 schools in the territory that had the capacity to deliver "Inuktut-medium" education — bilingual education where Inuktut is the main language spoken — up to grade five.

Seven schools could deliver the education up to grade four, and one up to grade five, with the gap in service largely chalked up to a lack of Inuktut-speaking teachers.

The territory's education act mandates that schools be able to deliver Inuktut-medium education up to grade three. However, earlier this year, the territory passed the Interim Language of Instruction Act, effectively suspending the requirement to guarantee Inuktut-language instruction for the time being while the Education Act is overhauled.

Amendments to the act are expected at this year's spring sitting of the legislature.

"Educational and other authorities have been informed about negative educational results," the study reads. "These have been pointed out in report after report for decades, together with sound, evidence-based recommendations for how to reform the education to produce more positive results. Today, in Nunavut, this has not resulted in changing the system except superficially."

'It's on each of us'

The study states that the education system is "failing comprehensively" in supporting the use, development, and revitalization of Inuit languages, and that those issues bleed into the territory's government workforce.

While the territory is required to develop and maintain a plan to implement policies and programs in support of the Inuktut language, a lack of Inuktut speakers being produced by the education system hampers those efforts.

Nunavut's Minister of Education, David Joanasie, says the government is working on a 10-year plan to address teacher recruitment and retention. (Travis Burke/CBC)

"In practice, it is difficult to see how the Minister could ensure the implementation of any such plan if children are not being equipped through the education system with the requisite levels of skills in official languages," the study reads.

David Joanasie, the territory's minister of education, said that language revitalization in the territory is "a work in progress."

"It's not just going to happen overnight," he said. "We need ongoing commitment and support, not just within the government, but also with organizations, outside parties."

Joanasie said that the government is working toward a 10-year teacher recruitment and retention strategy in order to make up the shortfall of Inuktut-speaking teachers, and continues to advocate for more resources for its Inuktut-curriculum.

However, he also said that the responsibility for ensuring the language's survival does not fall solely on the education system.

"It's on each of us," he said. "For those that can speak, that want to reclaim the language, or learn ... we have to immerse ourselves in it. It's a choice every day."

Joanasie also encouraged Inuktut speakers to contact the government and see what opportunities are available to work with programs revitalizing and promoting the language.

"Come work with us. There's different ways where you can protect, promote, and revitalize our language. Contact your department and see where you can fit into that."

Kotierk, who presented the report this week to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, said that she hopes its findings will spark a conversation.

"I think there needs to be a reform so that people start focusing on what is it that we're trying to achieve," she said. "And I think having marked 20 years of the creation of Nunavut is a great opportunity to start having the discussion."

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Written by Garrett Hinchey, with files from Jordan Konek, Qavavao Peter

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