Will protecting Inuktitut save a culture, or hold its children back?
On the dusty streets of Iqaluit, Nunavut, stop signs read in two languages: English and the squiggly syllabic characters of Inuktitut. So do signs at the post office, bank and grocery store. Inuktitut is the first language for 70 per cent of the territory’s 30,000 residents, and by some measures appears one of the healthiest indigenous languages in the country. But here in the capital, a town of about 3,600, English is the language of choice among young Inuit. Children wear SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirts, and buy the
latest CDs by 50 Cent and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Internet use is widespread, as is satellite TV. The result: Inuktitut is a language under siege, and assuring it survives, even flourishes, has become a priority.
In a controversial move this year, Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik ordered that senior bureaucrats learn the language or lose their jobs. The government is also drafting two new language laws designed to help make Inuktitut Nunavut’s working language by 2020, and lift employment barriers for Inuktitut speakers. “It really does open the ice for Inuit,” says Johnny Kusugak, Nunavut’s language commissioner. “Inuit kids can now look up and see that there are lots of positions in the government where they can reach their goals.”
One war room in the fight to preserve Inukti-
tut is the Pirurvik Centre—the place Nunavut bureaucrats come to learn Inuktitut, at a small table in a room looking out over Frobisher Bay. On this day, the lessons are on hold while the centre puts the finishing touches on a two-year project translating Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Office business software into Inuktitut. “It’s a start,” says Leena Evic, one of the centre’s founders, about the software, which will be used primarily by government. “If we do nothing now, Inuktitut could end up in a very threatened state.
TO SUCCEED, YOUNG PEOPLE NEED STRONG ENGLISH SKILLS, A CRITIC SAYS. ‘BY GRADE 4, THEY’RE BEHIND.’
But if we take the right steps it could be an indigenous language for a long time to come.” It’s an uphill battle. The big concern these days is the lack of Inuktitut in the education system. Nunavut’s population is the youngest in Canada (almost half are under 19) and according to one government survey, only 18 per cent of Inuit say Inuktitut is the language they speak most often in school. The language is taught up to Grade 3 or 4, but then tapers off in favour of English instruction. “In Nunavut this reinforces the colonial message of inferiority. The Inuit student mentally withdraws, then leaves altogether,” said Thomas Berger, a former B.C. Supreme Court justice, in a report last spring that also noted a “severe” shortage of Inuktitut-speaking teachers.
Some argue that young people in Iqaluit avoid Inuktitut because of the difficulty navigating its different dialects. But Louis-Jacques Dorais, a researcher at Université de Laval who has documented Inuktitut’s decline, says other factors are at play. Because English is the language of pop culture and business, Inuktitut “risks being increasingly limited to petty topics, on the one hand, and highly symbolic domains on the other,” he says. Serious social ills are also undermining education in either language. School dropout rates are astronomical—only about a quarter of Inuit children graduate from high school—and drug abuse and alcoholism are rampant.
In more isolated communities outside of Iqaluit, Inuktitut appears much healthier. Many of the elder residents are unilingual Inuktitut speakers. Still, even in places like Pangnirtung, a tiny hamlet an hour’s flight north, English use is on the rise. “It started when the government sent people off to schools in places like Churchill,” says Anuga Michael, 26, who worries about the type of education his infant son, Wayne Wilson, will receive. “My first priority is to teach him Inuktitut. That’s the way I was taught, so that’s the way I’ll teach him.” Asked about the challenge of protecting Inuit culture, though, he sighs: “It’s complicated.”
Not everyone backs Nunavut’s plans to prop up Inuktitut. For young people to succeed as professionals (like doctors or lawyers), they must have strong English skills, insists Nancy Gillis, a city councillor in Iqaluit. Basic English skills and a strong education system risk being lost in the scramble to preserve Inuktitut, she says. “By the time children hit Grade 4, they’re behind already,” she says. Others say forcing bureaucrats to learn Inuktitut is also misguided. Many of the skilled managers and bureaucrats here are not Inuit, or Inuktitut speakers. The majority of Inuit today lack the professional training and postsecondary education to fill top-tier jobs. Only about 45 per cent of the government jobs are held by Inuit (who make up 85 per cent of the population), and most of those jobs are lowerlevel positions.
Kusugak says he’s not worried the new language laws will drive away qualified bureaucrats. To reverse Inuktitut’s decline, young Inuit need to see that they can hold the most important positions in society while maintaining their culture, he adds. “When we were growing up, our parents told us that we have to learn English if we want to work in the changing world. ‘There will be jobs and security,’ they said.” Now that the Inuit have their own land and their own government, he says, that view must change. M
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