Language affects every aspect of daily life and it’s for this reason the United Nations has declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages.
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) is on board.
Language is an essential factor in education, health and justice, says president Aluki Kotierk.
“I think that’s why I focus so much on language. I think it’s a foundational piece. If we’re able to do that well it will have a positive impact on so many other areas of service and delivery,” she said in an interview Dec. 14.
One of Kotierk’s greatest disappointments is the lack of bilingual education through all grades in Nunavut schools. This, among other failures of the governments of Nunavut and Canada to implement articles of the Nunavut Agreement, is why the NTI membership directed the organization in late 2018 to explore self-government.
“This year marks 25 years since the Nunavut Agreement was signed. One of the things that we’ve been talking about a lot is: Where are we? What was envisioned? Have Inuit achieved what was envisioned? Where does it fall short? It makes sense that one of things that would be the outcome of that is that the NTI membership would direct us to embark on this study and to look at the options,” said Kotierk.
“This is a good opportunity to get Inuit talking about things and engaging in this political/policy area. So I think that’s a very positive thing.”
Another of Kotierk’s disappointments is that a collaborative relationship between the GN and NTI continues to fall short.
“We haven’t faltered from conveying, ‘We want to work with you, we’re here. We want to work on big issues that will make life better for Inuit,'” she said.
“In my view, the Education Act review is one of those big issues where I would have liked to see more engaged collaboration and co-development. To me it makes good sense and is required of the Government of Nunavut to work collaboratively with NTI. We were surprised when we found out that they were moving forward with the Education Act consultations and an approved legislative proposal.”
Kotierk points out NTI has articulated how the number of Inuktut-speaking teachers in Nunavut schools can be increased, and even where the funds could come from.
“And we’ve continued to articulate we want to work with them (the Department of Education and the GN) but that hasn’t resulted in anything,” she said.
“To me that’s a challenge this year that we faced, which I had hoped would have a different outcome.”
The deadline for submission on the GN’s proposed Education Act was Dec. 14.
“It will be interesting how the next months unfold,” said Kotierk.
Sometimes optimistic, sometimes not
Language also figures prominently at the national level, with the federal government looking to unveil new Indigenous languages legislation.
Kotierk is of the mind that national legislation must take into account Nunavut’s distinct position – the majority of Nunavut’s Inuit population, at 85 per cent of the total population, speak Inuktut.
“The dream of the creation of Nunavut was to have Inuktut as a language of service, of programs being delivered,” she said.
“From the outset, I’ve stated the legislation has to be beyond symbolic. And I’ve been very cautious knowing that there are so many Indigenous languages across this nation that Inuktut, if it doesn’t have its own legislation, will be buried amongst different provisions that are being drafted to address Indigenous languages all in different states of use.”
She’s not feeling optimistic.
“There’s been so much evasiveness I’m not convinced we’re going to get to a point where we can affirmatively and concretely say, ‘This is good for Inuktut,'” Kotierk said.
On the upside, recently announced changes to Nutrition North Canada included a new harvesters’ support grant, a need Kotierk and NTI have been advocating for several years. Last year at this time, Kotierk felt she had failed in this area, and hadn’t done a good enough job “articulating to the federal ministers about why harvesters should be supported and why, when we’re looking at food security, we should be building up Inuit in the way Inuit get their own good nutritious food.”
Calling the new grant a small achievement, Kotierk remains cautious. The feds did not release details about the new grant.
“But I’ve had the impression that they’re open to our suggestions and we have an opportunity to influence what that looks like. So at this point I feel optimistic about it,” she said.
‘Focus on the real issues’
In October, the federal government finally came through with a Nunavut Agreement requirement to provide a detailed analysis of the Nunavut Inuit labour force. While Kotierk says it’s a daunting document at 1,000 pages, she questions why the GN “has chosen not to make any commentary or provided it on their website.”
“It can’t go on a shelf, unacknowledged. It should inform how they make the Inuit employment plans that are still outstanding. That’s another failure of this year. We still have no Inuit employment plans,” said Kotierk.
While the GN says it does have those plans, Kotierk says, “There’s misinterpretation.”
“I think we’re not in agreement on what a detailed Inuit employment plan would look like. We try to look at Inuit employment plans by looking at Article 23 and the provisions there, and the details one would expect in an Inuit employment plan.”
NTI plans on sifting through the 1,000-page document to highlight pieces of information which are provided “so that it’s part of the discussion we’re having in Nunavut.” It has done some preliminary work in this area, and that’s available on the NTI website, as are the executive summary and full document.
“There’s little nuggets of information that speak to how Inuit want to be prepared to be employed in the public service and what are some of the barriers that exist, some of the systemic barriers that exist,” she said.
At this time next year, Kotierk wants to be celebrating a federal language legislation that addresses Inuktut, and that will see Inuktut-speaking Nunavut Inuit receiving programs and services in their language – with the resources to back it up.
“They’re related, but this would be a great achievement, that in the Education Act that there be a specific Inuit employment plan that is acceptable and that can be used specifically for Inuktut-speaking teachers,” said Kotierk.
Noting the high number of substitute teachers in the territory, Kotierk says she’d like to see that group be the first targeted to take teacher education programs in their communities.
“I would like NTI’s efforts and the Government of Nunavut’s efforts focused on increasing the pool of Inuktut-speaking teachers rather than focused on what’s the best wording for this or that provision because we’re trying to figure out when we’re going to push this back to without a plan,” she said.
“I think both of those would be absolutely thrilling stories to come out of Nunavut during the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and very appropriate. I think other groups would start looking toward Nunavut and aspiring to what we were able to achieve, if we were able to refocus our attention on the real issues.”