To fight racism in Nunavut schools, hire more Inuit teachers, educator says

In a panel on microaggressions in schools, Jay McKechnie said that racism in Nunavut’s education system is the result of a gap between the lived experiences of Inuit students and the ability of service providers who are non-Inuk to support them.

Iqaluit guidance counsellor gives presentation on racism in territory’s education system at national congress

Jay McKechnie is a teacher in Iqaluit. He says to combat racism more Inuit teachers are needed in Nunavut. (Submitted by Jay McKechnie)

To address racism in the education system in Nunavut, says a northern educator, there needs to be a shared understanding of race and racism for both Inuit and non-Inuit students and educators in the territory. 

One way of doing this, according to Jay McKechnie, a guidance counsellor at Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit, is to hire more Inuit teachers. 

"The greatest challenge for Nunavut educators is reconciling Inuit societal values within the European institution of school," McKechnie writes. 

"I am frequently confronted with Inuit students speaking of their culture from a position of inferiority and lamenting that they feel stuck between two worlds of cultural identity."

McKechnie gave a virtual presentation on racism in the Nunavut education system at Congress 2021 on June 2. 

Now in its 90th year, the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences is organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences in partnership with a different Canadian university each year. It brings together over 70 scholarly associations and 8,000 attendees including academics, researchers and policymakers, who share their research and findings, refine ideas and build partnerships.

In a panel on microaggressions in schools, McKechnie said Inuit students struggle with identity because the Eurocentric education system maintains a binary between Inuit and "Qallunaat" cultural identities that position Inuit as inferior. 

The term "Qallunaat" is frequently used to refer to people of European descent who have moved to northern Canada from the South. 

His presentation was based on a chapter he contributed to the book Global Perspectives on Microaggressions in Schools: Understanding and Combating Covert Violence that looks at racialized discourse in the Nunavut education system.

'We need more Inuit teachers'

As a non-Inuk teacher in Nunavut since 2007, McKechnie writes that racial microaggressions in the Nunavut education system are the result of a gap between the lived experiences of Inuk students and the ability of service providers like teachers and counsellors who are non-Inuk to support them. 

"We're not really meeting the demand that we need for new teachers currently," he said. 

Nunavut has had a history of teacher shortages. In August 2019, there were 60 vacant teaching positions in Nunavut and 84 in Nunavik, the CBC reported

The shortage may be fuelled in part by a shortage in housing. 

Many start the teaching profession with a family, making shared accommodations not appropriate. In some cases, no housing is offered at all, John Fanjoy, a member of the Nunavut Teachers' Association, told the CBC in 2019.

An important way of addressing the shortage of teachers, McKechnie said, may be to show Inuit students that teaching is a good profession. 

"Ultimately, we need more Inuit teachers," McKechnie said. "For that to happen, we need to support our students through education and to allow them to pursue education, but also to see teaching as an attractive profession."