The Current

Nunavut's delay of bilingual education a threat to Inuit language, says critic

Nunavut's government promised Inuktut in the classroom by 2019. But plans to expand bilingual learning all the way up to Grade 12 may be in jeopardy—and so is the language itself.
Plans to expand bilingual learning in Nunavut schools to Grade 12 may be in jeopardy. Nunavut's government had committed to having bilingual schooling in place by the year 2019 but now says it needs 10 more years. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

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Use of Inuit language has been dwindling among Nunavut's Indigenous population, and advocates say the territory's education system isn't helping as much as it should.

Under legislation introduced in 2008, Nunavut committed to delivering fully bilingual education in English and in Inuktut—the name used for the two Inuit languages in the territory, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. The move is to take place by 2019 for students from kindergarten to the end of high school.

But now, the territorial government wants to delay that commitment until 2029 for students up to Grade 9. Higher grades have been put off with no deadline.

"Nunavut was created to protect cultural and linguistic rights after generations of assimilation policies," Sandra Inutiq, Nunavut's former language's commissioner, tells The Current's guest host Kelly Crowe, explaining why she's speaking out against the move.

Former languages commissioner for Nunavut Sandra Inutiq says without the Inuktut language 'everything that really defines who we are' is lost. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"When you're dealing with a society that is in the middle of an identity crisis, the language piece is such an important part of that."

She says without the Inuktut language, so much is lost.

"[From] the ingenuity that involves having thrived in our climate and environment … the richness of our stories, our value systems,  our laws, our child rearing — everything that really defines who we are."

Inutiq's home is bilingual, but she says she struggles with how dominant English has become in the community. That's why, according to Inutiq, the education system needs "to be strong in our language."

Household use of the Inuit language has been giving way to English in Nunavut. Education researchers have been calling on the territorial and federal governments to provide more support to Inuit-language education.   
Nunavut's Education minister Paul Quassa says the government needs to delay its commitment to biligual education because Nunavut doesn't have sufficient Inuktitut teachers or resources to comply with the relatively new legislation. (Nunavut Department of Education)

"In terms of fostering healthy, self-confident young people with a sense of worth, the language and a strong sense of identity in being an Inuk is so important," Inutiq says.

"We're not delivering bilingual education as much as we want to because of a lack of resources," admits Nunavut's education minister Paul Quassa.

But Inutiq argues that the Nunavut government could have met its 2019 target, had it invested more Inuit-language classroom resources and teacher training.

Quassa insists that creating capacity and resources for Inuktut teaching have in fact been a focus for the government, pointing out while the system may not be fully bilingual, all students get some education in Inuit language. The government has also set up eight community teaching programs, and has plans for three more.

"I think it had very good intentions," Quassa tells Crowe of the 2019 target.

"But at the end of the day, we cannot force our population to become teachers."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sam Colbert.