Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A stop sign in English, French and Inuktut syllabics in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on April 25, 2015.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Aluki Kotierk is the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), the Inuit signatory to the Nunavut Agreement – the largest Indigenous land claim in the world, representing one-fifth of Canada.

Inuit account for 85 per cent of the population of Nunavut, and 70 per cent of us have Inuktut as our mother tongue. Yet all of the territory’s schools, with a student population that’s 94-per-cent Inuit, operate in English (with one French immersion exception for 85 students). Most of the curriculum is non-Inuit and was borrowed from Alberta or the Northwest Territories.

For 46 years, between 1951 and 1997, the federal government paid to build and staff 13 residential schools in Nunavut, with the purpose of eradicating Inuit culture and language. In a House of Commons committee meeting last month, Nunavut’s lone member of Parliament, Lori Idlout, asked Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez: “Will Canada build and staff 13 Inuktitut schools in Nunavut, or pay a third party – the territorial public government – to restore and support Inuit culture and language for the next 46 years?”

Mr. Rodriguez acknowledged that “language is how we express what we basically are; it’s our identity,” and that a “horrible” injustice had been done to Inuit. “If we want to set things right and correct the horrendous injustices committed, then children – your children – have to be able to learn their own language,” he added. But the minister refused to commit to helping us build any Inuktut schools to restore and strengthen our language and culture.

In 2016, Nunavut’s former languages commissioner told the United Nations that we are losing our language at a rate of 12 per cent per decade. At this rate, by 2050 only 4 per cent of us will be using Inuktut at home. Already in our communities, unilingual anglophone Inuit are unable to communicate with their Inuktut-speaking grandparents.

When Nunavut was created in 1999, the territorial government promised that Inuktut, in all its forms, would become its working language by 2020. This was an important goal for a jurisdiction where the majority are Inuit who speak Inuktut as their mother tongue. Our language is an integral part of who we are as a people: Not only is it the main language in which we communicate, but it is the window to our worldview and our understanding of how we fit into the global community.

But since 1999, things have gotten worse, not better. The little Inuktut that is offered in our schools is declining. Education in the language used to be an option up to Grade 3 in 16 of our schools; now only 10 of 43 schools offer that option. This retreat has happened in plain sight: Since 2006, multiple reports have highlighted our language-education crisis and identified potential solutions to this issue.

But the Government of Nunavut refuses to dedicate the attention and resources needed to fix this problem. In 2019, instead of ensuring that Inuit children and their culture are welcome in schools, the government passed a new law further enshrining an English-dominated school system. It reduced the requirement to teach all grades in Inuktut down to a single “Inuit language arts course” once a day. Our linguistic identity and future have been reduced to an “art form.” Further, it pushed the deadline for even this small amount of Inuktut education out by another 20 years, to 2039.

Almost three-quarters of middle- and senior-level managers in the Nunavut government are non-Inuit. They draft the laws, budgets and briefing notes, and they operate in English. They run our schools in English. Imagine if three-quarters of Quebec’s senior civil service were unilingual anglophones, or if almost all education in Quebec was taught in English.

We have the lowest graduation rate in the country. Our children are pushed out of the school system at a distressing rate, setting them up to fail and forcing them into social poverty, instead of thriving. We do not have an Inuit school system to act as a bulwark of Inuit culture, nor a platform for Inuit self-government. It is discrimination. All these factors have led NTI to believe that we have no choice but to take the government to court, which we did in October, 2021. The Nunavut government tried to get our case dismissed, but this week, the Nunavut Court of Justice allowed it to proceed.

But we are not only being failed by the territorial government. Our other treaty partner, the federal government, spends 44 times more on French than Inuktut inside Nunavut: $8,189 per francophone and $186 per Inuktut speaker. That is not reconciliation.

Few Canadians know that Inuit pay taxes for the schools that continue to assimilate us. We pay taxes for the courts we have to argue in – in English. Meanwhile, according to 2015 census data, the median income for non-Indigenous people in our territory is $101,494, while for Inuit, the median income is $22,523.

This situation is deeply unfair. Inuit teachers work tirelessly without additional pay to translate Albertan teaching materials, to make them relevant for Inuit students. Inuit nurses have to be expert interpreters to ensure that Inuit patients understand what is written in English on pill bottles. We have two-thirds of Canada’s coastline, but we cannot call a government rescue service in Inuktut. Police rely on bystanders to translate.

Just east of us, Greenland runs an entire government in its Inuit language. They’ve had an Inuit language-and-culture school system since 1979. If they can do it, we can do it.

Inuit should receive essential public services in Inuktut. It is a dignity issue. It is an equity issue. It is a safety issue. And it all starts with the schools.

Language is intricately intertwined with who we are; it’s integral to our self-worth and spirit. John Amagoalik, widely regarded as the “Father of Nunavut,” told a Canadian TV audience in 1976 why Inuit needed self-determination in their homeland: It was for “the survival of our people as a unique race in Canada. We want to save our language, our heritage, our philosophy – our whole way of life.”

It’s been 47 years since that television segment ran, yet we are still struggling to achieve that same goal.