Why ajuinata is the Inuktitut word we could all use right now

It means to persevere in the face of hardship, and Inuktitut speakers say it's deeply rooted in the culture of Canada's North.

'If you're confronted with adversity or things that are difficult, you keep going, you don't give up'

The concept of ajuinata is rooted in a spirit of perseverance against the harsh conditions of Canada's North. Here, a person braves a winter storm in Iqaluit in March 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

When Gov. Gen. Mary Simon visited Windsor Castle last month, she may have taught Queen Elizabeth a new word: ajuinata, roughly pronounced aye-yoo-ee-nah-tah.

In fact, it's not a new word at all, but a very old one, Simon later explained to the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault.

"Ajuinata means that if you're confronted with adversity or things that are difficult, you keep going, you don't give up, and you need to make a commitment to continue to make changes," said Simon, the first Indigenous person to hold the office.

It's a word Simon used to applaud the perseverance of Indigenous delegates after Pope Francis apologized for the Catholic Church's role in Canada's residential school system

Queen Elizabeth welcomes Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and her husband Whit Fraser for tea in the Oak Room at Windsor Castle on March 15. (Steve Parsons/The Associated Press)

It's also a word she employs when she makes "random calls of kindness" to Indigenous community leaders and other change-makers, a habit she said was inspired by a recent segment on CBC's Ottawa Morning.

Governor General Mary Simon explains the message behind 'ajuinata'

2 years ago
Duration 1:04
Featured VideoWhile on a kindness tour across Canada, the governor general shared an Inuktitut term to help inspire. She explains its origin.

In December as part of CBC's Project Give, Ottawa Morning organized surprise calls from Canadian VIPs — including Simon — to people listeners had nominated as in need of a pick-me-up.

"I've always used that word myself for my own work, so now I use it at Rideau Hall," Simon told host Robyn Bresnahan earlier this week.

She explained that the term is so steeped in Inuit culture that it's difficult to think of a single English word that captures its full meaning.

"It's hard to translate almost, because it comes from the language, from the culture," Simon said. "Before we had the communities we were very much out on the land and sometimes things became difficult, so we always said 'ajuinata' — never give up, let's keep going."

'Ajuinata ... means don’t give up, never give up, be committed to what you believe in,' Simon said. (CBC/Arctic Blue)

There are dialectical differences. Simon, who hails from Nunavik, uses ajuinata or ᐊᔾᔪᐃᑕ, while in Iqaluit, for example, many people would say ajuinaqta or ᐊᔪᐃᓇᖅᑕ. Elsewhere across the North, they might use a different word altogether.

Whichever variation is used, the sentiment behind ajuinata is universal, and these days it could be applied to all kinds of situations, from the war in Ukraine to the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.

Manitok Thompson, executive director of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, explained that while the term is deeply rooted in the struggle for survival against the harsh elements of the North, it could easily be used in different contexts, too.

It would translate to any culture. It's something that's needed now all over the world.—Manitok Thompson

"It would translate to any culture. It's something that's needed now all over the world. They are very powerful words that you have to hold on [to], and that you need to pass on to the young people because it's a different world now," Thompson said.

"Today, it's something that needs to be heard across the board for nurses, for doctors, for patients, for people, for elders, for children, for youth, for mothers, for fathers — these words are very powerful in our culture because we're survivors."

A woman in a traditional Inuk headdress
'[Ajuinata has] a very deep meaning … to people that have struggled with their environment, with having to hunt for food, for clothing that needs to be hunted and prepared. You don’t have Canadian Tire down the street,' said Manitok Thompson, executive director of the Indigenous Broadcasting Corporation. (Submitted by Manitok Thompson)

For Joanna Awa, current host of CBC North's supper-hour Inuktitut-language TV newscast Igalaaq, the concept of ajuinata holds a deeply personal meaning.

"When I had a special needs child I told myself 'ajuinata,' because I couldn't give up looking after her," said Awa, whose daughter Jenna lives in a care home in Ottawa.

Visiting Jenna became even more difficult during the pandemic, Awa said.

"It's like a mental exercise where, instead of just throwing up your arms, which is very easy to do, there was no choice but to continue, although you're faced with many challenges."

Awa said in Iqaluit, where she lives now, people are always telling each other "ajuinata."

"Because we've had water issues, fuel issues, now recently our landfill caught on fire — our community has been faced with these challenges, but we've come together and said, 'We can do this.'"

Joanna Awa sails near Devon Island during the Students on Ice expedition in 2019. The CBC North host said the concept of ajuinata is 'basically something we live with all the time.' (Submitted by Joanna Awa)

Awa also agreed there's no concise English equivalent, possibly because the experiences of the two cultures have been so vastly different.

"There's not one English word that fits, because it's got a very rooted meaning to our life previously, before colonization, where we basically lived in the harshest environment and we had to survive every single day," she said.

Thompson said she'd like to see English-speakers adopt ajuinata, and suggested another phrase to add to their vocabulary, which she spelled aniguniaqmijuq.

"This is very common in counselling people that are about to give up, that are having a hard time," she said. "It means, 'This too shall pass.'"