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Inuit language use stabilizing

The use of Indigenous languages among Inuit appears to be stabilizing after years of decline, an encouraging sign, Nunavut's languages commissioner says.

Sixty-four per cent of Inuit reported the ability to converse in an Indigenous language, primarily Inuktitut, according to 2016 census data released by Statistics Canada last week. That result is equivalent to the national survey conducted in 2011. Census data in 2006 and 1996 showed higher figures, with more than 70.9 per cent and 73.5 per cent of Inuit, respectively, able to converse in an Indigenous language.

There is greater strength within Nunavut's Inuit language community with 89.1 per cent of Inuit able conduct a conversation in an Indigenous language. Outside of Inuit Nunangat – comprising Nunavut, Northern Quebec, Northern Labrador and the Inuvialuit of the Northwest Territories – only 10.9 per cent had that ability.

Helen Klengenberg, the territory's languages commissioner, credited the legislative assembly for a "huge effort" since 2008 by enacting the Official Languages Act and Inuit Language Protection Act.

"I think that has had a very positive outcome," Klengenberg said. "To me it's pride – it's been recognized we can use our languages in the workplace... my job for the next five years is to ensure that everyone is aware that it's their right to live and work in their language and use it in Nunavut."

Klengenberg also expressed relief that regular MLAs defeated the outgoing territorial government cabinet's push to delay by a decade, to 2029, having Inuktut education instituted at all grade levels in schools.

"I think it was good not to proceed with the delay," she said. "I don't want to see us waiting until 2029 for it to happen."

At 42,065 speakers, the Inuit languages are the second largest of Canada's Indigenous languages, with Algonquian languages leading the way at 175,825 speakers, Statistics Canada reported. Inuktitut accounts for the bulk of the Inuit languages, with 39,770 speakers, mostly in Nunavut and Quebec.

There are also indications within the data that young Inuit are learning to speak Indigenous languages as a second language, with 65.2 per cent of those aged 0 to 14 able to speak an Indigenous language compared to 55.8 per cent in the same age group who reported an Indigenous language as their mother tongue.

While this is promising, Klengenberg said she wants it to be a milestone on a longer journey to increasing Inuit language fluency overall.

"I am very optimistic. I believe in statistics, but if we're making a positive move and if our goal is for everyone to be functioning and operating in the mother tongue, in our language, in the workplace, outside the workplace, in the home, we can only go forth with positive outcomes," Klengenberg said, adding that her goal is for more children to use Inuktut as their mother tongue.

Population rising

The Inuit population rose by 29.1 per cent, to 65,025, between 2006 and 2016, according to additional data released by Statistics Canada last week. That population remains young, with one-third falling into the 0 to 14 age category, compared to just 4.7 per cent at 65 years or older.

Almost three-quarters of Canada's Inuit population resides in Inuit Nunangat. Within the population of Inuit Nunangat, Nunavut is home to 63.7 per cent of Canada's Inuit. Population growth within Nunavut, specifically, registered at 22.5 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

Language statistics

Ability to converse in an Indigenous language among Inuit

  • 2016 – 64 per cent
  • 2011 – 64 per cent
  • 2006 – 70.9 per cent
  • 1996 – 73.5 per cent

Inuit language speakers

  • Inuktitut: 39,475
  • Inuinnaqtun: 1,310
  • Inuvialuktun: 595
  • Other Inuit languages: 350
Source: Statistics Canada