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Kotierk to feds: Inuktut is a founding language

Not long after the federal government unveiled its five-year action plan for official languages in late March, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. president Aluki Kotierk addressed the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).

photo courtesy of UNWebTV
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. president Aluki Kotierk addresses the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues April 16 in New York by invitation of Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett. Kotierk spoke of the need for the federal government to recognize Inuktut as a founding language.

"In Canada, our language, Inuktut, is considered to be one of the stronger Indigenous languages. Seventy per cent of Nunavut identify Inuktut as their mother tongue. Yet it is declining at one per cent per year. Nunavut is the only jurisdiction in Canada that has a majority language that is not one of the federally recognized official languages – French or English," said Kotierk to those assembled.

Kotierk attended the forum by invitation of Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett.

In a message prefacing the federal action plan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated, "English and French, our two official languages, are at the heart of our identity as a country."

The feds say the action plan represents the largest federal investment in official languages in Canadian history.

"This new plan contains more than 30 new measures to help support our communities across the country and ensure that official languages continue to thrive for years to come, from a Francophone immigration strategy and early childhood education, culture and education initiatives to a new fund for English-speaking Quebeckers," said Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly.

But as Kotierk notes, Inuktut is the founding language of Nunavut, is legally recognized in the Nunavut Agreement, and is the heart of Inuit identity – yet it receives paltry funding.

In Nunavut, the federal government spends 44 times more on French than it does on Inuktut: $8,189 per Francophone for language programs in Nunavut and $186 per Inuktut speaker, according to Kotierk's figures.

"It concerns me that some unilingual Inuktut-speaking Inuit are not receiving equitable public services similar to those of other Canadians," Kotierk told the UN forum.

She laid down the numbers: 42 schools in Nunavut, all operating in English, except one in Iqaluit, which operates in French; 37 of 41 school principals are English non-Inuit, almost all from southern Canada; 9,300 Inuktut mother-tongue students to 430 English mother-tongue students, and 80 French-speaking students; 452 English-speaking teachers – more than the number of English students.

"So, the reality is: our children do not see themselves reflected in the majority of the curriculum, our children do not see themselves reflected in the majority of the teachers, our children do not hear their language used in the majority of their classrooms," said Kotierk.

Speaking of her experience at the UNPFII, Kotierk told Nunavut News, "I think often Canada is viewed as very progressive, internationally. It needs to be clear that, yes, maybe it's relatively progressive compared to other countries but there are still challenges."

Kotierk says Canada has a narrative of two founding nations – French and English.

"When we discuss the creation of Nunavut, the public majority speak Inuktuk. So it (Canada) needs to rightly recognize that Inuktut is actually a founding language of our territory."

Meanwhile, the federal government is developing Indigenous languages legislation with Inuit, Metis and First Nations leaders.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) president Natan Obed has publicly stated the Inuit reality is very different from First Nations and Metis.

"We don't want legislation that is pan-Indigenous," he said.

The GN's Minister of Languages David Joanasie said Premier Paul Quassa is taking "quite a lead role" on language-related issues.

Language funding is on the GN's radar, he said.

"I can say that, yes, we have the majority of Nunavummiut who speak Inuktut and have their right to access services and programs in our own language. Also, we have a long history of cooperation with the Government of Canada. We are aware of these different levels of funding," said Joanasie.

"This new multi-year – it was signed March 2017 – it enhances the funding for Inuktut quite substantially from $1.1 million a year to $5.1 million a year. We're progressing in the right direction."