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The Push to Revamp Nunavut’s Education System

Leaders of the sprawling territory in Canada’s Eastern Arctic view bilingual instruction as a key way of improving lackluster education outcomes. But a proposal to standardize the Inuit language in the process may be a tough sell to some.

Written by Peter Varga Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Nunavut Education Minister Paul Quassa reads to students in both English and Inuktitut at Iqaluit’s Nakasuk School as part of literacy week in September 2016.Photo Courtesy the Government of Nunavut

To the Inuit of Nunavut, classroom-based schooling is recent enough that the Canadian territory’s oldest Indigenous residents recall being the first among their people to experience it.

Paul Quassa, 65, is among them. Growing up near Igloolik in the Canadian Arctic of the 1950s, Quassa and his classmates experienced schools as an institution where they learned the language and ways of a foreign culture that claimed dominion over their people and their lands.

Today, as minister of education for Nunavut, it’s Quassa’s job to shape and mold education policy to benefit the people of Canada’s youngest territory. For the 21st century, that means teaching pupils in the Inuit language as well as English, giving them the skills they need to build their own territory, and ensuring young Nunavummiut have the same opportunities as Canadians in the rest of the country.

Given Inuit peoples’ recent departure from a culture rooted in the land and the rapid population growth in isolated communities, Quassa acknowledges the Department of Education’s task is a big one.

“We are also responsible for 30 percent or more of the population,” says Quassa, pointing to Nunavut’s large share of children and teenaged residents.

“This territory has a very young population, and education has a big role within this community to ensure that our language is strong and our students are well-educated,” Quassa says.

“It’s a big responsibility. And I really enjoy it because it’s challenging. I think this territory relies on the Department of Education to be successful.”

The challenge looks daunting. Public school attendance and graduation rates from high schools are among the lowest in Canada.

Nunavut students have typically attended school 70 to 75 percent of the time from 2001 to 2014, according to figures from the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics. The Department of Education reported 78 percent attendance in 2014-2015, which is the highest recorded for the territory so far.

Almost 40 percent of Nunavut students graduated from high school in 2016, according to the department, which is also the highest recorded so far.

As minister since 2013, Quassa is the latest government official in charge of building a school system that began with the territory’s establishment in 1999 out of the Northwest Territories. Nunavut premier Peter Taptuna heads up Nunavut’s fourth government, which has marked improvements to education and advancement of the Inuit language as priorities.

One task the government set out to accomplish before the end of its mandate this fall was to review and update Nunavut’s Education Act, established in 2008. The act gave education authorities in Nunavut’s 25 communities three different models of bilingual education to choose from for their schools, with varying amounts of Inuit language (Inuktitut or Innuinaktun) and English instruction to be used in classes at each grade level.

The auditor general of Canada’s examination of education in Nunavut at the beginning of the Taptuna government’s mandate concluded that the territory was falling well short of its goal to implement Inuktitut and English “bilingual education” in the school system from kindergarten to the end of high school. Lack of qualified teachers and teaching resources are at the root of the problem, according to the auditor general’s report.

The Legislative Assembly of Nunavut followed up with its own review of the act, including public consultations, and the government concluded it had to establish a uniform standard of bilingual education across the territory.

Trouble is, Nunavut’s three regions – Baffin in the east and north, Kivalliq in the centre and Kitikmeot in the west – host different dialects of the Inuit language. Use of the Inuit language at home, work and school vary as well. Use of English predominates in larger communities such as Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay, while local varieties of Inuktitut predominate in others.

“The territory is so vast – we have different dialects, we have different values in many of the communities,” says Quassa.

“But education has to be standardized across the board. Because we will be seeing, and we do see, a lot of students moving from one community to another. And we don’t want to disrupt their educational process, just because they move to another community, and the other community has another way of delivering education.”

Based on information from District Education Authorities, which administers schools in the communities, Quassa knows that teachers and school administrators are questioning one aspect of standardization in particular: the standard Inuit language dialect, known as “Inuktut,” that will be used in all class materials and as the language of instruction.

“Can we standardize some words so that every school can use the same language – whether you are from Kugluktuk or from Clyde River?” Quassa asks. The department is working with the territory’s Inuit Language Authority to do just that, he says.

The government has favored the North Baffin dialect as the standard to be used in education materials.

Exactly how much Inuktut and how much English the new standard bilingual model will deliver remains to be seen. The department will give details on this when the new act is tabled in the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut this spring, Quassa says.

The government wants at least half of all instruction in Nunavut’s public schools to be in Inuktut. That’s not the case in most communities so far, where “bilingual education” ends at about third grade.

The reason? Nunavut is struggling to hire teachers who are certified and willing to teach in Inuktut. The Department of Education relies on the Nunavut Teacher Education Program (NTEP), run by Nunavut Arctic College, to train Inuktut-speaking teachers for the territory’s schools.

“We are reviewing the Nunavut Teacher Education Program so we can actually deliver and follow our act, which says our ultimate goal is to have Inuktut, from K to 12 [kindergarten to Grade 12],” Quassa says.

The department is now working with the University of Regina, which grants the NTEP degrees, to do just that, he says.

At the higher grades in most communities, Inuit language classes are offered on a limited basis. The department’s next big task is to deliver advanced classes such as mathematics and science in Inuktut.

“These are things we have to work on still,” the minister says.

Quassa’s department has also marked the need to improve and expand “early childhood education” for preschoolers and kindergarteners as priority.

The department has noted this would help prepare students from an early age to have greater success in the school system. One solution is to extend kindergarten from half-day to full-day. This could create more space for daycares “and hopefully that can put our attendance rates further up,” says Quassa.

Nunavut’s Indigenous population also faces extreme factors unique to the Arctic, which also complicate schooling. Housing shortages throughout the territory result in overcrowded homes that make it difficult to study or sleep, Quassa notes, and the high cost of food leaves many families short on nourishment. Social issues such as alcoholism, substance abuse and teenage pregnancy are also among the highest in Canada.

“Certainly, I think as a whole government, we’ve got to look at all of these factors,” says Quassa. “If we’re going to be successful in getting well-educated students, we have to also look at the whole social factor [dimension] of the community and the homes.”

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