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Inuktut absent from proposed federal languages legislation

Inuit leaders are calling out the federal government, saying Indigenous languages legislation engagement was carried out in bad faith.

Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez introduced the proposed Indigenous Languages bill in the House of Commons just days after the president of the United Nations (UN) convened the general assembly for a high-level event Feb. 1 to mark the global launch the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages in New York City.

"Despite being characterized as a reconciliation and co-development initiative, the Government of Canada engaged Inuit in bad faith throughout this legislative initiative," stated Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed.

"The absence of any Inuit-specific content suggests this bill is yet another legislative initiative developed behind closed doors by a colonial system and then imposed on Inuit."

photo courtesy Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. president Aluki Kotierk, right, stands with Inuit Circumpolar Council (Canada) vice president Lisa Koperqualuk, who is an executive council member at the UN and addressed the general counsel at a high-level launch of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages Feb. 1 in New York City. The two would soon learn Inuktut would go unrecognized in the Canadian government's proposed Indigenous languages legislation.

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) president Aluki Kotierk said she is frustrated and angry. Nunavut already has Inuktut-language rights.

"So what we need to do is build upon those," she said.

"I think what's particularly disappointing is Inuit Nunangat, as the four Inuit regions of Canada, we have been working really hard with specific provisions, with specific ideas and concepts that we're trying to have included in the Indigenous Languages Act."

In fact, Inuit presented the feds with a variety of options: a three-page draft addition to an overall act for Inuktut, a 38-page draft stand-alone act for Inuktut, and a seven-page position paper. Kotierk says those documents should have been the starting point of discussions. Rather, the feds seem to have ignored the documents altogether, as the proposed bill doesn't even mention Inuktut.

Inuit Circumpolar Council (Canada) vice-president Lisa Koperqualuk, who is an executive council member at the UN, addressed the general counsel with a speech prepared with support from NTI and other Inuit representatives.

"In this International Year of Indigenous Languages, the Government of Canada has – appropriately, and to its credit – undertaken to pass a national Indigenous languages bill," said Koperqualuk.

"Inuit participation in and support for this legislative initiative has been contingent on the expectation that any bill would be distinctions-based and include Inuktut-specific provisions that build on existing rights for Inuktut. We continue to engage with the Government of Canada in an effort to ensure that the bill meets this expectation."

Koperqualuk noted Inuit want the federal government to recognize Inuktut as an original language of Canada, the original language of Inuit Nunangat, and the first language of the majority of Inuit Nunangat residents; commit to the delivery of essential programs and services in Inuktut in Inuit Nunangat, and; provide resources for Inuktut that are sustainable, effective, and comparable in quality and accessibility to the services offered to other Canadians.

None of that would come to pass, Kotierk and Koperqualuk would learn Feb. 5.

The Nunavut Agreement protects the constitutional right of Inuit to be involved in any social or cultural programming, says Kotierk.

NTI sent a letter to Rodriguez the day after the proposed legislation was tabled, with copies sent to Government House Leader Bardish Chagger, Minister of Justice David Lametti, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett.

"We're indicating that we hope this bill that was introduced would go to the appropriate standing committees so that we have the opportunity to make a presentation to talk about the concerns we have," said Kotierk.

Kotierk says that among the 50 sections of the proposed legislation, 38 are focused on a commissioner's office.

"How does that help my grandson maintain his ability to speak Inuktut, or grow up in a way that he will be able to speak Inuktut as an Inuk in Canada by having a commissioner's office?" Kotierk asked.

"Governments are really good at re-announcing things that already exist. In my view, this is just a rebranding of the Aboriginal Languages Initiative that already exists. There's nothing new."

Further, for Kotierk, the symbolic gesture that is the legislation avoids the responsibility on the Canadian government's part for the role they played historically in the diminishment of Inuit languages with its residential school system.

Kotierk was especially looking for a systematic effort for providing Inuktut services.

"Similar to the way they do for French," she said.

"I think: would the French have accepted having a French language commissioner? And be OK that that's the only type of investment and oversight that the federal government has? I know the answer is 'No.'"

Kotierk wonders what happened to the federal government's "most important relationship," which the feds have repeatedly stated is with Indigenous people.

"That's why it feels like a slap on the face," she said.

"This government does not truly want to embody reconciliation."