Canada: Inuit language at the crossroads

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Oct 30 14:18:29 UTC 2007

Inuit language at the crossroads
by Ian Smith

29 October, 2007The Canadian territory of Nunavut, created in 1999,
has a population of 26,665, of whom 85% claim Inuit identity (2001
Census data). Of these approximately 85% claim to speak the Inuit
language at home. (ibid. "Inuit Language" subsumes two major dialect
groupings: Inuinnaqtun in the west and Inuktitut in the East.) With
their huge political majority and their geographical isolation, the
Inuit ought to have no trouble maintaining their language, but the
challenges they face demonstrate that minority language maintenance is
a difficult process, even when the odds appear to be extremely

The government of Nunavut has recently introduced two language-related
bills, which have now progressed to second reading in the legislative
assembly. The first, Bill 6, is an official languages act which
establishes Inuit Language, French and English as official languages
of the territory. The second, Bill 7, is an Innuit language protection
act that seeks to promote the maintenance of the Inuit Language.

Prof. Ian Martin, language policy consultant to the Nunavut government
and to the Inuit organization, NTI (Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated),
presented his assessment of the stituation in a talk at Glendon
College of York University this past week.

Prof. Martin was cautiously optimistic, while pointing out that the
endangerment of the Inuit language is at a crucial juncture. Of great
concern is the school system, in which currently pupils are offered
instruction in Inuit language up to grade 3; grade 4 is a transition
year, and subsequently instruction is in English only, provided
overwhelmingly by monolingual anglophone teachers with no background
in ESL issues and, as temporary residents from the south, no prior
knowledge of Inuit culture. This system has produced two
language-impaired generations. The generation of elders, who retain
the cultural and linguistic competence of the past, is passing on.
Thus, despite the apparent vitality of Inuktitut in many communities
(less so, Inuinnaqtun), the tipping point is now.

Bill 7 proclaims the right of all Nunavut residents to "Inuit language
instruction" and provides for the gradual introduction of Inuit
language instruction through to the end of secondary school. There is
some concern, however, that this provision may be interpreted as
referring to language classes, while only the use of the Inuit
language as a medium of instruction will provide the basis for
language revitilization. Even with the more beneficial interpretation,
it is by no means clear where the necessary teaching personnel will
come from. The bill also provides for the use of the Inuit languages
as a [sic!] language of work in the public sector. Private sector
compliance is voluntary, but supported.

The bill is not as strong as the famous Bill 101 that has reversed the
erosion in the use of French in Quebec, and the main Inuit
organizations, NTI and QIA (Qikiqtani Inuit Association), feel that
the proposed laws are not strong enough to prevent further decline of
the Inuit language.

Prof. Martin pointed out, however, that there are political
constraints on the territorial assembly's actions: since Nunavut is a
territory, rather than a province, all the assembly's legislation must
pass through the federal parliament in Ottawa, which would be unlikely
to support legislation as strong as Bill 101, given that parts of the
latter have been judged by Canada's supreme court to be in violation
of the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms Canadian

Much is at stake. If the local political will can overcome the many
practical obstacles, Nunavut may provide a model for language
revitalization in other territorially-concentrated communities. Should
it fail, the prospects for the world's minority languages will be all
the bleaker.

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