Advancing Inuit priorities for Inuktut

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Inuit want to promote, protect, and speak Inuktut in all aspects of our lives. Whether it is teach­ing Inuktut as a language of instruction in learning institutions, providing second language learning, or implementing our Indigenous right to access services in our language, we have a long road ahead to keep our language strong and support all those wishing to learn.

Number 14 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action calls on the federal government to enact an Aboriginal languages act. The department of Canadian Heritage responded to this call in June 2017, announcing it would embark on the co-develop­ment of national First Nations, Inuit, and Metis languages legislation in partnership with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the Assembly of First Nations, and Metis Nation.

More than a year later, ITK continues to work on this initiative by ensuring that language priorities and policy positions of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Nunatsiavut Government, and Makivik Corporation are harmonized into national Inuit legislative content, to be brought forward to the federal government for consideration and possible inclusion in the bill.

ITK is pleased that the federal government has prioritized the co-development of national languages legislation during the current legislative session and that it intends to introduce a bill to the House of Commons in early 2019.

This initiative is an opportunity to advance bold and imaginative actions that will help shape the future of Inuktut and its place within Canada.

Our language is the most resilient Indigenous language in North America and is spoken by the majority of our people. Therefore, Inuit priorities when it comes to national legislation reflect practical concerns related to rights, services, and the range of investments and supports required to ensure that Inuktut flourishes in all sectors of society.

However, our language has for far too long been a secondary consideration for the federal government in Inuit Nunangat, even though English and French mother tongue speakers are minority populations in two of our four regions.

Federal programs and policies tend to reflect discriminatory funding practices that either ignore the practical, everyday linguistic needs of Inuktut speakers in many of our communities or, at best, are not designed to seriously meet those needs. This must change.

For example, consider the fact that the primary federal funding stream available to Inuit in Nunavik is the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, whose one- and two-year language grants are administered by Canadian Heritage for one-off language promotion projects and initiatives. Yet 99 percent of Nunavik Inuit report having the ability to speak Inuktut according to Statistics Canada. Long-term, sustainable sources of funding are needed and legislation can help.

We’re optimistic that national First Nations, Inuit, and Metis languages legislation can be effective and impactful if it is distinctions-based and addresses the unique geographic, political, and cultural context of Inuit. In practical terms, this means that a bill should include a specific Inuktut section that contains the legislative elements necessary to revitalize, maintain, and strengthen Inuktut within Inuit Nunangat as well as for those Inuit who live outside of our homeland.

Inuit are unified nationally in our positions on what national legislation should seek to achieve for Inuit. The ITK Board of Directors passed a resolution in May 2018 that calls on the Government of Canada to enact legislation that fills federal policy gaps that contribute to conditions of linguistic disadvantage and addresses discrimination faced by those for whom Inuktut is a first, only or preferred language. To that end, legislation should recognize Inuktut as an official language within Inuit Nunangat and affirm rights for Inuktut speakers equivalent to those for French and English speakers, including the right to access federal services in the language.

These broad positions may appear bold to those unfamiliar with Inuit communities and society, yet they are quite moderate given the unique linguistic context of Inuktut and the everyday realities faced by Inuktut speakers who have for generations successfully transmitted our language from one generation to the next within a political context that has often been adverse to our very existence. However, it is clear today that due to language shifts, we are losing fluent speakers of Inuktut faster than they are being replaced by children learning Inuktut as a first language.

If we are serious about revitalizing, maintaining, and strengthening Indigenous languages in this country, and if we are serious about implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, then we must take the bold and imaginative actions required to ensure that resilient languages like Inuktut thrive well into the future. The federal government must play a significant role through enacting and implementing legislation, but we must do all we can, starting in our homes and in our communities, to keep our language strong.

Nakummek,

Natan Obed
National Inuit Leader and President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami