Funding needed to avert 'death blow' to Inuit language in Nunavut, academics say

The Inuit language is in crisis in Nunavut, say a group of academics, who are calling for the territorial and federal governments to invest millions in bilingual education.

Education researchers call for government funding to train Inuit teachers before it's too late

Nunavut's Education Minister Paul Quassa tabled a bill proposing changes to the Education Act in the Nunavut Legislature last week. The changes would scale back targets for Inuit language instruction. (Vince Robinet/CBC)

The Inuit language is in crisis in Nunavut, say a group of academics, who are calling for the territorial and federal governments to invest millions in bilingual education.

The open letter to Premier Peter Taptuna and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed by 16 academics comes one week after Nunavut introduced legislation that would significantly dial back its commitment to Inuit language education.

Paul Berger of Lakehead University. (Lakehead University )

In 2008, the Education Act and the Inuit Language Protection Act promised to offer Inuit language instruction in all grades by 2019. The proposed changes would move that date to 2029 for grades up to Grade 9 and indefinitely for Grades 10 to 12.

After tabling the bill in the Nunavut Legislature last week, Education Minister Paul Quassa blamed the inability to meet the 2019 target on a shortage of Inuktitut teachers and a lack of resources.

That bill would signal a "death blow" for one of the country's most viable Indigenous languages, says Paul Berger, an associate professor at Lakehead University and one of the open letter's signatories.

"As soon as you weaken it that much in the schools, it's going to be hard to keep it viable outside of the schools," he said.

Train Inuit teachers

The signatories include researchers who have worked with the Nunavut Teacher Education Program, a program to graduate master's degree students in education, and other academic and linguistic researchers in the territory.

They're calling on the Nunavut government to come up with a "robust and bold" strategic plan to increase the number of Inuit teachers needed to offer Inuit language education in schools. 

The letter suggests that some of that could be paid for using $50 million earmarked for training in a 2015 settlement between Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Nunavut government and the federal government.

It also calls on the federal government to commit substantial amounts of money. 

"If Canada stands by as a country and watches as people decry the loss of [Inuit languages] ... when there are things that could be done to prevent that, I think that's a really terrible thing," Berger said.

"There is a language crisis in Nunavut, and in many real ways the success of the language equals the success of the territory," the letter reads.

"This is now a test of the seriousness of Canada's commitment to reconciliation — a test that must be passed."

Read the full letter here.

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With files from Kieran Oudshoorn