Nunavut's promise still lost in translation

The Nunavut Territory celebrated its tenth birthday on April 1, but there were some awkward silences at the birthday party, because no politician wants to admit that they forgot something as important as a people's language.

In the rush to create Nunavut ten years ago, Parliamentarians forgot they were creating a territory that would not conform to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada’s Official Languages Act. In the lead-up to April 1, 1999, Parliament passed dozens of amendments to federal legislation, but Ottawa chose to ignore the fact that it was creating a jurisdiction that was going to relegate both English and French to minority language status.

Eighty-five per cent of Nunavut’s population is Inuit, 75 per cent of whom speak Inuktitut as their first language; yet the territory’s government and stores and businesses all operate in English. Of the territory’s 25 schools, 24 operate in English; the lone exception being a new $5 million French school in Iqaluit. There are no Inuit language schools. The Nunavut government spends $3400 per year for language education for each francophone and only $48.50 on Inuktitut education for each Inuk.

The Official Languages Act and Section 23 of the Charter say that the minority official language group can be English or French, but apparently cannot be both. For the past ten years, Ottawa has allowed these two minority groups to get almost all the public education money in the new territory, depriving the majority of essential funds to build up an Inuit language school system.

This is the “elephant in the room,” the obviously controversial issue which everyone avoided mentioning at Nunavut’s 10th birthday party. Although this practice is morally wrong and may well violate Canada's laws, Canada’s Official Language Commissioner has made no comment on this injustice.

When Inuit signed the landmark Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) in 1993, they assumed that they would be allowed to use their language at work and in their schools. Article 4 of their Agreement obligated Parliament to create Nunavut, and Article 23 required the government to hire a “representative number” of Inuit (85 per cent) into the schools and civil service, and to remove barriers -- including barriers to Inuktitut -- in the workplace. But Ottawa has ignored this requirement; and so Nunavut’s schools and government stumble on trying to serve the citizenry in a language that they do not speak.

It’s not that Ottawa doesn’t understand how to remove linguistic Barriers -- the Federal government’s bilingualism effort of the 1970s and 1980s was devoted to removing barriers to Francophone participation in the public service. The Federal government knows how to create a bilingual public service; it signed a land claim saying it would do this in Nunavut, but Ottawa refuses to ante up and pay for the Inuit language school system that would make this possible.

Francophone parents are well aware that for francophone culture and French language to survive in Canada public education had to be delivered in the French language, by French-speaking teachers with schools administered in French and with a francophone commission scolaire (school board). Francophones have these rights -- in Quebec, across Canada, and even within Nunavut.

Ten years on, Inuit students still do not have the same rights as their Francophone schoolmates. Nunavut’s students attend English schools, run by Nova Scotia and Newfoundland teachers who use an Alberta curriculum and have little or no understanding of Inuit culture.

As Nunavut enters its second decade, Canada’s Official Language Commissioner must re-examine how the Official Languages Act and Section 23 of the Charter apply to Nunavut. At a minimum, the Official Languages Act must be changed to acknowledge that one of Canada’s 13 jurisdictions uses a majority language that is neither English or French, and public education money must be funnelled to support that majority and their language. And let's remember that this majority language is not a new immigrant language, like Mandarin for example -- Inuktitut has been spoken by Inuit for 5000 years and should rightly be considered as a founding language of our nation.

Ten years ago Parliament passed the Nunavut Act in order to welcome Inuit into Canada, but we left their language outside. It is now long overdue for Canadian lawmakers to fix this mistake and give Inuit their voices back.

Derek Rasmussen lived in Iqaluit, Nunavut from 1991 to 2003, serving as policy advisor to various Inuit organizations in the territory.

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