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Nunavut Seeks Solid Footing to Preserve and Promote Inuit Language

Building the ranks of bilingual teachers is key to improving Nunavut’s school system, says Eva Aariak, a longtime champion of Inuit culture and language.

Written by Peter Varga Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Eva Aariak, right, is a longtime champion of Inuit culture and language in Nunavut.Photo Courtesy Government of Nunavut

Eva Aariak is quick to admit that her memories of school in the Canadian High Arctic community of the 1960s are very different from the realities that 21st-century Inuit schoolkids experience today.

For starters, Aariak’s home community of Arctic Bay had less than 100 residents when she was born in the mid-1950s – a time when indigenous Inuit of the Arctic were shifting to a settled life in communities from a more nomadic, traditional lifestyle in “camps.”

Life as she recalls it was “more manageable, and the parents had complete control over their children,” Aariak says. “Not like these days. It was more of a traditional style of child rearing. It was much easier for the parents to control whatever happened to their children.”

Classroom-based schooling was relatively new to the Inuit, and she recalls parents made sure their kids didn’t miss any of it. “Even though they didn’t understand the education system, they ensured that it is the norm that one goes to school every morning at 9 a.m., and so on,” she says.

Her teachers in Arctic Bay didn’t speak a word of Inuktitut to students – only English, which is how she learned the language. Aariak would become an educator herself, as well as an entrepreneur and public official devoted to Inuit culture and language.

From Nunavut’s start as a territory in 1999, she had a hand in shaping both language and education to benefit her people – first as the territory’s languages commissioner, then as premier of Nunavut from 2008 to 2013. Her term as premier included duties as minister of education for two years.

Unlike the schooling that Canadian teachers brought to Inuit in the 1950s and 60s, the system Aariak helped shape for Nunavut is geared to protect and promote Inuit language and culture. Nunavut was, after all, “created because of culture and language,” she says.

The population of Nunavut’s 25 remote communities totals about 37,000, spread over one-fifth the area of Canada. One-third of Nunavummiut are younger than 15 years of age.

The small settlements of tightly knit families that Aariak recalls from her youth have given way to communities with overcrowded housing, scarcity of affordable food, high rates of substance abuse, youth suicide and other social issues that have largely sprung from drastic shifts in Inuit livelihoods and lifestyles over the past century.

Education Minister Paul Quassa, like Aariak, largely blames Nunavut’s social issues for low student attendance and low high school graduation rates. In recent years, attendance barely topped 75 percent of classes attended by each student, hitting a recent high of 78 percent in 2014-2015.

Aariak is optimistic. “I see the young parents today who are raising their children now, and they are very responsible,” she says.

The former premier’s successors in the current government – Quassa and Premier Peter Taptuna – promise to forge a solid formula to improve education standards in the Inuit language and English before their mandate finishes this coming fall. The government will table a revised and updated Education Act during the legislative assembly’s session this winter.

In line with the Inuit Language Protection Act, the revised education regulations will identify a standard Inuit language, known as Inuktut, to be taught at Nunavut’s public schools, according to a standard curriculum. The Inuit language has several regional dialects of Inuktitut throughout the territory.

The Education Act says Nunavut’s school system is supposed to be “bilingual,” offering courses in the Inuit language and English in equal measure, from kindergarten to grade 12. That goal, set out when the government passed the act in 2008, has scarcely been met up to grade 3 in most communities, due to a drastic shortage of certified Inuit-language teachers.

The territory relies on the Nunavut Teacher Education Program (NTEP), run by Nunavut Arctic College, to train Inuktut-speaking teachers for the territory’s schools.

“We’re still 300 teachers short in Nunavut – bilingual teachers. So there’s still a long way to go,” says Aariak, who is now director of language training for Pirurviq Centre, an Iqaluit-based company that produces educational materials in Inuktitut.

“There aren’t enough efforts to ensure that the Inuktut language plays an important role in the training program.”

Nunavut uses two forms of writing for the Inuit language: syllabics and roman orthography. (Courtesy of Pirurvik Centre)

Nunavut uses two forms of writing for the Inuit language: syllabics and roman orthography. (Courtesy of Pirurvik Centre)

Elementary and high schools throughout the territory confirm they give few courses in the Inuit language after grade 3.

“There’s no human resources to teach in the Inuktitut language” at higher levels, says Sarah Ayaruak, principal of Leo Ussak elementary school in Rankin Inlet.

Ayaruak, who has worked as a teacher and principal at her school for 29 years, knows this to be a common difficulty in larger communities. Such is the case in the territorial capital of Iqaluit (population almost 8,000), and Pangnirtung in the Baffin region, Cambridge Bay in the Kitikmeot region, Ayaruak’s own community of Rankin Inlet, and neighboring Arviat in the Kivalliq region.

Rankin Inlet has a population of little more than 2,700.

“It’s sad,” Ayaruak says. “It’s much easier [to study in the Inuit language] in smaller communities, because the majority of staff are Inuit. But in a larger community like here, people are coming and going from different places.”

When students and parents from different communities meet, they tend to speak English or mix English with Inuktitut to overcome differences in dialect and reach a quicker understanding, Ayaruak says.

The principal also notices more children are speaking English at home in Rankin Inlet than ever before.

Nunavut schools use two writing systems in their Inuit language classes. Syllabics – a system that uses symbols to represent single-syllable sounds – is normally taught first. Roman orthography, which uses a Latin alphabet like English, typically follows.

Government and local authorities have long used syllabics as the norm for official correspondence and signage in Inuktitut, with one exception: Roman orthography is commonly used to write the Inuinnaqtun dialect in the Kitikmeot region of western Nunavut.

School principals and teachers observe that most students are already familiar with roman orthography due to the prominence of the English language in all media.

“In terms of people who have not yet learned the two systems, including non-Inuktitut-speaking people when they’re learning to write – should they have to go through an extra step, by learning syllabics?” Aariak asks. “It’s a very touchy issue,” she says, noting that syllabics has deeper historical significance for the Inuit of Nunavut.

Quassa, the education minister, says the government is considering whether its commitment to standardize education across the territory should include the adoption of a single standard of writing.

“We’ve been looking at how we can best approach it,” Quassa says.

The government of Nunavut has also looked to neighboring Greenland, whose indigenous population is closely related to the Inuit of Canada, for some example on how to protect and promote the Inuit language. Greenlanders have used Greenlandic, a local variety of the Inuit language, in schools since the early 20th century. At that time Greenland took a different path than Nunavut, and the language was taught using the Latin alphabet, rather than syllabics.

The country adopted the West Greenlandic dialect of Kalaallisut as the standard to be taught in schools and used in official correspondence, much as the government of Nunavut has promised to adopt an Inuktut standard. Kalaallisut is Greenland’s preeminent language, with English and Danish spoken as secondary languages to connect with the outside world.

It is now Nunavut’s turn to do the same, says Aariak.

“I see so many students – the young generation [of Inuit] actually getting emotional when they are taking courses in Inuktitut, when they realize how rich our culture is, how much they missed it,” she says. “It’s a connection to who you are – it’s empowerment.

“If a person is content as to who he or she is, knowing where they came from, and have a strong, solid base as to who they are, they can tackle anything and work anywhere in the world.”

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