Nunavut premier wants mandatory Inuktut fluency for government employees within 4 years

Nunavut Premier Paul Quassa says within the next four years, his government wants to make Inuktut fluency mandatory for all government employees.

'That's realistic. I think we need to think outside of the box,' Premier Paul Quassa says

Nunavut Premier Paul Quassa says his government wants to make Inuktut (the all-encompassing term for Inuit languages) mandatory for all government employees within the next four years. (Jordan Konek/CBC)

Nunavut Premier Paul Quassa says his government wants to make Inuktut fluency mandatory for all government employees within the next four years.

Inuktut is the all-encompassing term for Inuit languages, including Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun and Inuvialuktun.

Tuesday in the legislature, Quassa tabled the government's mandate, Turaaqtavut.

The long list of priorities includes "enabling the Inuit language as the working language of the public service" and "strengthening the foundations for a fully functional, bilingual society in Inuktut and English or French."

In an interview with CBC News Wednesday, Quassa took it a step further saying making Inuktut mandatory is something his government wants to achieve during its term. 

"This government is going to work toward eventually making it mandatory. And that's the only way to do it," Quassa said on boosting the number of Inuktut-speaking employees within the government.

When asked if he wants to achieve Inuktut fluency in the government in the next four years, Quassa replied: "Of course!"

"That's realistic. I think we need to think outside of the box. We're already committed to ensuring Inuktitut is spoken everywhere in our government. You see that every day. It's a matter of enhancing that," Quassa said.

"How can we ensure that all government employees will have an opportunity to learn Inuktitut if they can't speak it? Here I am. I'm bilingual. I can speak fluent English. And if I can do it, anybody can do it."

Quassa pointed to Quebec and its use of French as an example of what he envisions for Nunavut.

"Inuktitut is spoken by the majority of our population," Quassa said, adding that there are now entities that are good at teaching Inuktitut. 

"So it's possible. Like I said, we have to think outside of the box and we have to be bold in decisions."

The government's new mandate also prioritized amending the Inuit Language Protection Act.

This isn't the first time Quassa has publicly expressed his desire for more Inuktitut-speaking employees in the government.

At Nunavut's Leadership Forum in November, Quassa was questioned on it in his bid for premier.

"As a government, we should make a directive to make language training mandatory where unilingual, English-speaking public servants within the government of Nunavut learn the Inuktitut language," he said at the time.

"They should be provided training and they have to take the language courses since we are in Nunavut. We aren't in Ontario or Quebec."

Inuktitut fluency numbers low

According to a report from Statistics Canada on the 2016 Nunavut government employee survey, 39 per cent of respondents said they spoke Inuktut well enough to use at work. Forty-seven per cent of respondents said they were "proficient" or "somewhat proficient" in Inuktut.

Among Inuit respondents, 81 per cent said they were proficient, compared to nine per cent among non-Inuit workers.

Among all government employees, 38 per cent said they "sometimes" or "often or always" used an Inuit language at work, while 69 per cent of Inuit employees said they do use an Inuit language.

Lots of priorities, but no strategies

The rest of the government's mandate included a long list of priorities, but no timetables or strategies on how to achieve them.

The five priority areas outlined were Nunavut's self reliance, economic development, education and training, strengthening Nunavut as a "distinct" territory (the mandatory Inuktut falls under this), and fulfilling Nunavut's obligations under the Nunavut Agreement.

Within each of those priority areas, 22 specific priorities were noted including enhancing health-care services across the territory, responding to the needs of Nunavummiut for safe and affordable housing and food security, and amending the Education Act

"If Turaaqtavut is our map toward where we are aiming to go, then our budgets will be the steps that get us there," Quassa said in the legislature Tuesday.

"As we begin our budgetary processes to determine how best to use our territorial resources, both financial and human, we will do so through the lens of Turaaqtavut and the priorities that we have outlined within it."

The operations and maintenance budget is expected to be tabled during the legislative assembly's spring sitting, beginning May 24.


Nick Murray


Nick Murray is a CBC News reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He specializes in investigative reporting and access to information legislation. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports.

With files from Kieran Oudshoorn