There are no less than four official languages in Nunavut – Inuktitut, English, Inuinnaqtun and French. In addition to these, there are several distinct dialects spoken depending on your exact location in the territory.
Historically, Inuit languages were de-valued and even prohibited as part of the assimmilation attempts made by residential schools. There are stories of secondary students being denied entry into classes that would prepare them for post-secondary studies in medical professions or teaching because of their preference for instruction in Inuktitut. Fortunately, that is no longer the case.
Here, the Government of Nunavut has committed to preserving Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun in its Languages Act, which sets out an ambitious plan to protect, respect and foster Inuit languages, as well as guaranteeing services and materials in both languages.
Research from McGill University reported this week in Nunatsiaq News (you should read the article…or at least the comments at the bottom) found that instructing primary school students in Inuit languages did wonders at improving their self-esteem, as well as their academics. While this study was conducted in northern Quebec’s Inuit regions, it is difficult to imagine drastically different results would be found elsewhere.
One of the challenges with instruction in Inuit languages is finding qualified teachers who speak the languages. This same challenge exists in almost every field – for medical services to be provided in Inuit languages, there must be qualified professionals who speak the languages. For court services (from lawyers to police) to be provided in Inuit languages, there must be qualified professionals who speak the languages. (I think you get the point by now, but I could go on…) Slowly but surely, this is becoming reality.
One thing that is clear to me here more than anywhere else I have worked or visited, is that change is generational. As I’ve said before, so much of what I learned came from my parents and other family members, who learned from their parents, who learned from their parents. While that isn’t everyone’s story, the context children live in growing up normalizes certain behaviours and habits as positive or negative, and socializes us to think that way. For many of today’s parents and grandparents in Nunavut, childhoods were spent on the land, not in communities, or in residential schools – neither experiences which represent daily life in communities.
There has been a major learning curve associated with moving into communities and adopting non-nomadic, wage-based lifestyles that connect them with other parts of Canada and the world in a new way – a learning curve that is far from finished. As families and individuals continue to adapt and change and mesh traditional ways of life with new ones, good things do happen. More children will grow up speaking Inuit languages. More children will be more successful in the education system. More teachers and medical professionals and police and lawyers will speak Inuit languages.
As the learning curve continues, the least that can be done is making every effort to facilitate learning in the language people choose – whether Inuktitut, English, Inuinnaqtun, or French.