An inclusive-and-interactive workshop addressing Indigenous research and training capacities with a focus on disability rights, deafness and the revitalization of Inuit sign language was held in Rankin Inlet, Jan. 21.
The workshop was sponsored by the Canadian Deafness Research and Training Institute (CDRTI) in connection with the Nunavut Deaf Society and supported by a connection grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
The gathering was facilitated by CDRTI Director of Research Paige MacDougall, who said the workshop had a positive dialogue going all day among its participants.
She said the group looked at previous materials and work that’s been done collaboratively in recording the Inuit sign language, as the groundwork for moving forward with trying to implement the materials in creative ways in the communities.
“That involved some research on the part of local people in deciding where the materials should be placed to help create awareness in public spaces right here in Rankin Inlet,” said MacDougall.
“Everyone piped up with ideas such as the bank, post office, health centre, airport, restaurants, RCMP and taxi cabs, among others.
“So, in addition to using the resources that we’re generating like sign-language cards, videos and books, we’re looking at making a poster with the ABCs on it, and maybe a few basic signs, just so when deaf people come into an area they see this and feel more comfortable knowing the people who work there at least have some awareness of the challenges deaf people have in trying to communicate.
“A number of the participants were really excited about that as something concrete they could work towards in their community, so they’ll be exploring spaces and maybe involving local artists in the creation of posters and, maybe, pamphlets.”
MacDougall said a number of workshop participants told the gathering about problems getting into taxi cabs, or issues at the health centre where they ended up waiting six hours for an appointment because no one called their name in a way they could understand.
She said a number of issues could be partially rectified simply by the creation of basic resource materials for the community.
“The conversation we had on just trying to make daily life easier soon led to more serious issues like access to justice, or needing social services due to family violence. If a deaf person is involved in these situations, then we have to look at a more formal means of communication.
“I was in the Siniktarvik Hotel a few years back doing my consultations and recordings with the deaf community and a deaf man was in court at the same time.
“While I was sitting in the restaurant, a justice professional who was working with this deaf person in court came up and asked me if I could be an interpreter, which I couldn’t because I am not a qualified interpreter.
“There’s a need for us here to use the documentation of the language to start putting it in schools and getting the next generation ready for the development of interpreter-training programs that are locally appropriate.”
MacDougall said the process represents a holistic wheel where you start with awareness and get things going in preschool.
Then, she said, as the sign language is developed and recorded, it can get into higher levels of education and the territory can work towards building an interpreter training model that works in the local cultural context.
“At that point you have employment being generated and access to important services happening.
“So the awareness opens up room for education, the education leads to the development of training programs, and then we have more equal access to services.
“There are no qualified deaf interpreters in Nunavut, but we’re trying to make it happen by creating these materials and recording the language and life histories for the past 12 years.
“This program is now receiving support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and they want to open up new avenues of collaborative research between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and organizations.”
MacDougall will team with her father, James MacDougall of McGill University, as well as the president of the Nunavut Deaf Society Sandy Kownak and her deaf son Clayton Ungungai – all founding members of the Nunavut Deaf Society – to write a policy-suggestion paper to present in Ottawa this coming March.
She said things take time and, at this point, it’s important those in the Nunavut Deaf Society be patient and take each step as needed and necessary.
“We can outline the steps of how this trajectory is going to happen, but it’s a process that can’t be rushed, so, in terms of how long it will take until we see everything being implemented, that depends on the momentum of interest we can generate to support such a project in the communities within Nunavut and in Canada.
“Our approach really is to do work and raise awareness in the communities, which can then filter up through to the levels of funding and support needed for these projects.
“Recording language is a complicated endeavour. We don’t even know the number of deaf people in Nunavut at this time and the sign languages up here are quite variable.
“So it’s important we get all the deaf people together so we can actually explore the different signs and come up with a multi-useful representation of the sign language here called Inuit sign language.
“It’s possible, but it takes effort, community consultations and dedication.”