Representatives for Inuktut speakers of the country gave the Canadian Heritage committee an earful this week about the government legislation to revitalize and protect Indigenous languages.

Natan Obed

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed and Inuvialuit Regional Corporation CEO Duane Ningaqsiq Smith echoed sentiments of independent MP Hunter Tootoo that there are no assurances Bill C-91 – An Act Respecting Indigenous Languages will translate into anything meaningful.

“There is no obligation or requirement of the government of the region to provide any education within the Indigenous languages … we need to get it as a requirement, to work with us to develop some of our own people to become the teachers,” Smith told the committee of parliamentarians. “We’re not saying we don’t want to teach them English or French or anything else, but we do think in our region that Inuktut should be part of the curriculum.”

Introduced at the end of last year by a Liberal government that has made reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people a cornerstone of its administration, Tootoo was the lone MP in the Commons to vote against Bill C-91 at second reading last week. Tootoo said the bill was a nice idea but there was little in the way of concrete action, specifically for Nunavut.

Smith said the IRC wants “bilateral agreements to further the purposes of the act, rather than leaving it as a mere option,” and took a shot at perceived pork-barrelling in the Northwest Territories, which receives federal transfers yet holds the purse strings for public service expenses, including education delivery in the Western Arctic.

“As we have observed over the last few decades, funding that is distributed is not distributed in an equitable or even logical fashion,” said Smith. “It tends to go where the voting populations are greater but the chance of success is weak.”

Obed told the committee that Inuktut is Nunavut’s official language – spoken by 84 per cent of the territory’s population – however, government services including health care, education, policing and even the Canadian Coast Guard do not reflect this, which can contribute to negative outcomes, particularly where public safety is concerned.

“Inuit face consequential linguistic barriers when it comes to accessing public services, especially within the majority Inuktut speaking regions of Nunavut and Nunavik,” said Obed.

“This problem is particularly acute in law enforcement, where the limited number of Inuktut-speaking RCMP officers contributes to under-reporting of violent crime and family violence.”

Earlier Smith told the committee that just 22 per cent of Inuvialuit have conversation ability compared to 38 per cent of Inuktut speakers in Nunavut, where 40 per cent report it as language spoken at home. In terms of funding disparities among language groups in Nunavut, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s written submission provides eye-opening data.

“Under the terms of the 2017-2020 Canada-Nunavut Agreement on French Services and Inuktut Language, for example, approximately $8,189 is allocated for each French speaker compared to $186 per Inuktut speaker per year,” according to ITK’s written submission to the Heritage committee. “Neither Bill C-91, as currently drafted, nor any federal policy-maker, has expressed any interest in ensuring that Inuktut, and by extension Inuit, receive the same dignity that English or French Canadians receive within Inuit Nunangat.”

Due in part to Inuktut’s official status in Nunavut – one of three official languages including English and French; in NWT it’s one of 11 official languages – ITK wants the legislation to include an Inuktut annex. While Smith called the legislation “a positive start”, he articulated potential issues the federal legislation could have if it becomes law.

“There are existing laws that recognize Inuktut as official language,” said Smith noting Canada’s obligations under the Inuvialuit Final Agreement and territorial legislation. “It will be necessary to re-evaluate the creation of the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages and its role in jurisdictions in NWT and Nunavut that already have a similar office.”

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