Inuit in Nunavut are taking legal action against the territorial government, seeking Inuktut-language education in public schools from kindergarten to grade 12.

In what it called a “landmark lawsuit” filed on behalf of two parents of children in the school system Wednesday, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI)—which represents Inuit in Nunavut—stated that the Government of Nunavut is “violating constitutionally-protected equality rights of Nunavut Inuit under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

“This claim is all about discrimination based on race and ethnicity,” NTI President Aluki Kotierk said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit. “Although Inuit are the public majority, our schools function in English or French.”

“​​Linguicide by any other name is just as damaging.”

As of 2018, there were 9,300 students who spoke Inuktut as a first language, while 90 spoke French and 430 were mother-tongue English. Despite this, every school in Nunavut operates in English, with the exception of one French-language school. Around a quarter of the schools offer an option for Inuktut instruction in early grades.

Language loss is understood by many Inuit to be part of a multi-faceted societal crisis. Drop out rates for Inuit students in Nunavut have been as high as 70 per cent.

“So many of our people are survivors of residential schools,” said Kotierk. “Although it’s our own government, it’s set up in a way that diminishes and degrades who we are as Inuit, and that plays into intergenerational trauma.”

In a 2018 article, Kotierk noted that there were more English-speaking teachers in Nunavut than there were students who spoke English at home. 

At that time, Kotierk wrote, most of those teachers were from the south and did not speak Inuktut, while 37 of Nunavut’s 42 school principals were English-speaking non-Inuit.

The original Education Act in Nunavut mandated that education be provided in both Inuktut and English at all grade levels by 2019. This would have put it on par with neighbouring Greenland, which has had first language schooling in its Inuit language since 1841.

In 2020, however, the Government of Nunavut pushed the deadline back by 20 years, to 2039. (Another deadline had the government functioning in Inuktut by 2020, but that was delayed to 2040.)

Representing NTI, James Eetoolook told The Canadian Press at the time that “the Inuktut language and culture are being eliminated in the schools of Nunavut,” which “constitutes cultural genocide.”

Nakasuk elementary school, Iqaluit, Nunavut. Photo: Timothy Neesam

One southerner with decades of experience in Nunavut, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the non-Inuit workforce constitutes “a rotating turnstile of occupiers that is only made possible by the use of English everywhere.”

“It’s an expat economy where folks come up, make their money and leave.”

Paul Berger, a professor of Education at Lakehead University, told a Montreal Inuit studies conference in 2019 that “if you wanted to colonize a people really well, you’d design an education system from the colonizer’s perspective—with majority colonizer teachers, colonizer language, and colonizer curriculum.”

“This is what has happened in Nunavut—I think about all the apologies that the government has made recently: the dog slaughter, residential schools, involuntary relocations, the 60s Scoop… [Education] is what the apologies will be about 20, 30, or 40 years from now.”

The measures passed by the territorial government in 2020 also downgrade the mandate from a requirement that schools be fully bilingual to instead phasing in the addition of a single “language arts” course in Inuktut.

The federal government, which exerts profound control over the territorial government, has a long-standing policy of blocking Inuit language rights. In 2017, 88.5 per cent of the territorial government’s budget came from Ottawa. 

A 1990 cabinet decision ordered negotiators to block “linguistic guarantees for use of [Inuktut] in government and the legal and educational system” in what was to become Nunavut nine years later.

The decision was never reversed, and the federal government has continued to hinder efforts to move the education system to have all instruction available in Inuktut, and feature Inuit culture. 

Officials use a language clause—23(1)(n)—in the Nunavut Act as a one-way ratchet, locking in every expansion of English and French education, and blocking the repurposing of government resources to serve the Inuktut-speaking majority.

In 2010, BC Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger warned that “the federal  government will not subsidize education in any language except English and French.”

“I said, ‘Folks, you can make an exception for this. Don’t get rattled by this,’” he said, adding “I thought I was  going to be able to get folks in Ottawa to really think about this and to alter the policy in the case of Nunavut. But alas, I didn’t succeed.” 

Currently, the federal government provides $8,189 per francophone student in Nunavut, while funding for Inuit speakers is $186 per student—around 97 per cent less. 

In 2015, NTI won a $255 million settlement from the federal government for violations of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claim Agreement. In September, NTI allocated $12.4 million of those funds to the Nunavut Teacher Education Program to help fund the training of more Inuktut-speaking teachers.

The program has existed since 1979, but the average number of graduates has topped out around nine per year—not enough to supplant southern-dominated, non-Inuktut-speaking teachers. However, students must speak English to graduate from the program and are trained to teach in English. The program has recently suffered from what one report called mismanagement by the Government of Nunavut, which administers the program. NTI  hopes the additional funding will increase the availability of Inuktut-speaking teachers, and has proposed over a dozen additional measures to bolster their numbers.

The 2016 census found the median income of Inuit in Nunavut was $22,523, and $101,494 for the territory’s 4,375 non-Indigenous residents. Most southern workers stay less than two years, costing government almost $90 million per year to relocate. A PriceWaterhouseCoopers study conducted in 2017 found that $1.2 billion left Nunavut over a six year period as a result of staffing an inordinate number of government positions with people from the south.

However, many southerners working in Nunavut resent the assertion of Inuit language rights.

In 2019, former Nunavut Language Commissioner Sandra Inutiq wrote an article titled “Dear Qallunaat (white people),” describing widespread racist attitudes toward the Inuit majority from “a highly transient, mostly white” workforce occupying government positions of all kinds.

“Recognize and admit your power and privilege and the fact you are benefiting from racist systems,” she wrote.

“Inuit are relegated to lacklustre employment equity programs, with little regard for alternative qualifications,” Inutiq explained. 

“Imagine, after Nunavut was created, if there was a program to train Inuit to become Inuktut teachers in a deliberate, systematic way? Our language would be thriving rather than on a downward spiral, treated as an inferior language and not worth saving.”

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