Over her 37 years of teaching, Lena Metuq has witnessed the growing strength of Inuit culture and language in Pangnirtung’s schools.
The evolution is even more dramatic when she hearkens back to her days as a young student.
“They’re more equal now. They have the same merit,” she says of Inuktitut and English as the basis for classroom lessons. “When I went to school, I wasn’t supposed to speak in Inuktitut. That’s colonialism, and not any of our culture or language was in the school… We’re striving to be a bilingual school (now)… with IQ (Inuit qaujimajatuqangit or traditional knowledge) as the basis for what we do.”
Metuq is pleased with increasing Inuktitut resources – such as series of books in the Inuit language – but there is still a need for corresponding training to ensure teachers can make optimal use of those tools, she says.
“We are having to shift the old way of teaching Inuktitut, which was very phonetic. Now it’s more looking at what the child knows and building on it. That has been the paradigm shift of thinking,” she says.
Pangnirtung has a strong language base upon which to expand, according to Metuq.
“People believe in the (Inuktitut) language and people are still practising the language,” she says of her community.
At Alookie Elementary School, Elders paid visits on multiple occasions in January to teach children Inuit games, string games and bone games and to tell stories. The Elders showed the youngsters how to skin seals, eat them and make clothes from their skins. They also taught the children how to safely gather river ice for water and how to make use of soapstone.
“It’s very important that the school has Elders (come) in. (The students) all learn something from Inuit culture by observing, by trying hands-on activities, by listening to Elders,” Metuq says. “We have to strive for (students) to have the best understanding of where they come from… In the 21st century, you have to be an Inuk who’s able to stand with both feet in two cultures that you’ve seen and live in. What we do is very important as to helping the child become an able person… because there’s been a lot of colonialism – it’s had an effect on Inuit.”
Expanding her skills
Metuq got her start as an education professional as a special needs assistant and then became a classroom assistant. After a few years, she enrolled in the Northern and Native Teaching program in 1985-86 to earn her teaching certificate in Iqaluit.
She returned to Pangnirtung to teach at the elementary school.
She later took on a role as a program support teacher for a few years and then settled in as co-principal at Attagoyuk Ilisavik, the high school, for a stretch.
She went back to school again in 1995 to attain her bachelor of education degree.
With her teaching degree under her belt, she began working at Attagoyuk Ilisavik with a mission to increase Inuit qaujimajatuqangit in the curriculum. She also examined ways to improve the instruction of Inuktitut, particularly in language arts.
By 2006, she was ready to augment her own learning once again. Metuq was one of 21 Inuit teachers who formed the first group of Nunavut masters of education students through the University of Prince Edward Island, graduating in 2009.
Transitioning from teacher to pupil and back again so many times over the years to broaden her expertise has paid off for Metuq.
“It’s also to help me grow… to attain more, learn more things so I’m able to have more skills to help my community, to help my fellow Inuit,” she says.
She’s always happy when youth are eager to get to the on-the-land camps to learn traditional skills.
She adds that she gets a sense of joy from watching kindergarten students advance all the way to high school graduation. One local graduate became a pilot. Another came back to the school as a teacher. Others have acted as guides during the spring camp since they became accomplished harvesters.
“Those kinds of things really stand out in my mind,” says Metuq.