Modern Education meets Traditional Inuit Knowledge
July/August 2012 by Teevi Mackay
The first ever Elders Teaching Certification Ceremony, held in Igloolik, Nunavut, on April 25, made for an historic and fondly memorable day. Nunavut Premier and Minister of Education, the Honourable Eva Aariak, and the Deputy Minister of Education, Kathy Okpik, travelled to the community for the day to mark this proud occasion. The event had already been announced in advance on local radio and upon her arrival, community residents and organizers of the event warmly greeted Premier Aariak and her team with open arms.
In the words of the Premier, the certification of elders, as teachers, is part of the “made in Nunavut, made for Nunavummiut” Education Act passed in September 2008.
The day-long visit began first at the Hamlet of Igloolik offices where the Premier spoke with community leaders about Nunavut’s Education Act and how it is preparing the territory for a bilingual Nunavut education system. She then toured local schools followed by a delicious caribou stew and bannock luncheon at the Ataguttaaluk High School, where the official afternoon ceremony would take place.
Seen as an important stepping-stone toward building a meaningful curriculum that reflects the culture and traditional values of Inuit, while Nunavut continues to fully integrate into the Western system of education, the Act is meant to bring the two worlds — the Inuit way and the Southern way — into balance.
Born and raised in Arctic Bay, Iqaluit is today home to the Premier and her family. Her own education however, began in Arctic Bay. Once the limited education system that existed there at the time could no longer accommodate the level of learning she needed, she was moved to Churchill, Manitoba, to attend the residential school. Aariak said her schooling in Churchill was a positive experience and she has nothing but good memories of her time there. A few years later she moved to Ottawa to advance her studies.
Those years of learning at residential school and in Ottawa prepared her well for a return to the North. She began her working life as a teacher in varying capacities that included teaching Inuktitut. She also worked in the human resources sector before tackling journalism as a CBC television and radio broadcaster. Her media experience eventually led Aariak to become the communications manager for the interim commissioner of Nunavut before the transition of the territories.
After Nunavut was created in 1999, Aariak “was thrilled” when the Territory’s first Legislative Assembly chose her to become Nunavut’s Languages Commissioner. Referring to the new office, “I had to start it right from scratch” she says.
Determined to make the Commissioner’s office relevant for Nunavummiut she practiced one of the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) foundational principles: Qanuqtuurungnarniq, the concept of being resourceful—a central component of the traditional Inuit approach to tasks and situations.
Aariak flew to Yellowknife to learn the ways of the NWT Language Commissioner’s office. She also spent a great deal of her time travelling across Nunavut to inform people about the office. By the time she left her position as Languages Commissioner, it was a fully functioning arm of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut.
Aariak also helped to create the Official Languages Act of Nunavut, which includes English, French and the Inuit languages (of Nunavut) passed in June 2008. She has also spearheaded the development of “the very special Inuit Language Protection Act.”
Approximately 85 per cent of the Nunavut population are Inuit, about 70 per cent of whom speak either Inuktitut or Innuinaqtun. Legislated protection was important to protect against the further erosion of the Inuit language.
Today, the Nunavut government is working on the Uqausivut Plan, a policy strategy that addresses the implementation of this Inuit Language Protection Act. All government departments are working to finalize and submit their plan for this and the process will begin once submissions are received.
First elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut representing Iqaluit East in the October 28, 2008 election, Aariak strived to practice another IQ principle: Pijitsirarnaq, the concept of serving and she describes the experience (of being elected) as a very special day in her life.
Sitting in Premier Aariak’s office I had the opportunity to ask her about how she felt the moment she was chosen by her colleagues to be the Premier of Nunavut. She described that day, November 14, 2008, as a surreal and exciting time.
The actual selection process, she admits is “slow”. With two other MLA’s vying for the position, it took a whole day of deliberations before she was chosen. The process begins with another elected member putting forward a nominee’s name for the Premier’s position.
Traditionally, an Inuk “leader was someone who inspired people to work well together, whose intelligence, competence, and regard for the well-being of the community were proven. Such a leader rarely made mistakes and had thus earned the confidence of the people” (Bennett and Rowley, Uqalurait: An oral history of Nunavut, McGill- Queens University Press, 2004).
The IQ principle of Asjiqatiglingniq, decision-making by consensus is seen in the way in which Premier Aariak obtained her leadership role and in the way in which decisions are made in the Legislature of Nunavut.
During our conversation, Premier Aariak emphasized again that her mindset is to balance her traditional thinking with the demands of the Western world. She tries best to balance the two in order to accommodate the relevant needs and requirements of her people in today’s world.
Soon after becoming Premier, Aariak initiated what she calls “a Report Card” on the previous government. Not for the purpose of giving a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ grade, but for the purpose of seeing where Nunavut was, what was working and what needed to be changed. She knew too that the 10th anniversary of Nunavut was approaching. Nunavut was created not by war, but through civil negotiations, which birthed the Nunavut land claims agreement, “an agreement that was the first of its kind in the world,” Aariak adds.
She wanted to hear from the people and wanted their help because they are the recipients of services and programs. The Government of Nunavut received feedback from Nunavummiut through radio shows, letters, questionnaires, websites, and public meetings pertaining to how the government needed to improve. From this information, Premier Aariak and the cabinet with the concurrence of the regular members, created the Tamapta Mandate (Building Our Future Together) — setting the priorities and mandate of the Government of Nunavut.
Another helpful IQ principle, Piliriqatigiingniq, stresses the importance of working collaboratively together for a common purpose. To set the direction for their programs and services from the ground up, Premier Aariak, started with the voice of Nunavummiut.
The Nunavut Education Act, also created through extensive consultation with Nunavummiut, balances traditional Inuit values with the Western system of education. The Act has “a lot of emphasis on our culture”, she says. The Education Act mandates that elders will teach in Nunavut’s education system, which is why elders in Igloolik were recently certified to teach in Nunavut schools. Elders will “work in the same capacity as regular teachers” and they will teach culture and language in various subjects.
Recently, the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Education signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Agnico-Eagle Mining Company for the purpose of working together to ensure that the Nunavut curriculum increases Inuit youth capacity to pursue skills and training in trades and professional careers. This partnership aims to give Inuit youth access to training opportunities and jobs in the mining sector after high school. Rankin Inlet’s Nunavut Trades Training Centre, which opened in 2010, will play a huge part in accommodating the training needed in this area.
The Government of Nunavut also has partnerships with southern universities in order to train Nunavummiut in the North. For example, recently 21 students have graduated with a Master’s Degree in Education, in affiliation with the University of Prince Edward Island and presently there are 17 students enrolled in the second cohort who are set to graduate next year.
Premier Aariak proudly acknowledges that presently there are more Nunavummiut students accessing post secondary programs than ever before. Nunavut is seeing an influx in applicants for Nunavut Arctic College programs, as well as more and more Nunavut students attending and excelling at southern universities.
However, this turn of events did not come so quickly. Premier Aariak noted that Inuit have gone through tumultuous changes since the 1950s and 60s when Inuit were asked to move to central communities so that their children could attend school. During this time parents were not involved in the children’s education. It was a negative experience for the parents as they had to distance themselves from their tradition and release their children into the school system. The teachers at the time, unfortunately, did not promote parental engagement.
Today’s Government of Nunavut however is encouraging parental engagement in the school system as never before. Premier Aariak stresses that parents need to be involved in the education of their children as it is part of the backbone of success for the territory. Her goal is to ingrain this value in the minds and hearts of parents.“ Most of all they have to ensure that their children are attending school,” says Aariak, to combat the high rate of non-attendance in Nunavut schools.
Other factors, too, need to be considered. Nunavummiut face many serious social problems, such as the housing shortage, which facilitates overcrowded and unhealthy living conditions, and the lack of food security.
For a child to be fully engaged in school, Aariak says,“ they need to be provided with adequate food, proper housing, parental love, support and encouragement.” She strongly believes that even while many Nunavummiut face challenges, parents still have a role to play in the education of their children.
Part of the Government of Nunavut’s mandate is to try to address social problems at their root cause. The Nunavut Department of Social Services has created a Mobile Addictions Treatment (MAT) pilot program– a treatment team that will offer a regional, residential treatment program in Cambridge Bay and serve Nunavummiut in the Kitikmeot Region. This pilot initiative is the interim solution before an actual treatment centre is created in Nunavut. The MAT program was developed in response to the Nunavut Social Services Review report published in July 2011.
A Child and Youth Representative is also recommended in the same report, and the Government of Nunavut acted swiftly. Legislation will be introduced in June and the actual office will be created once legislation is passed. This Representative will be appointed to “protect and promote the rights and interests of children and youth,” says Aariak. The Government of Nunavut is also putting more of an emphasis on early childhood education to ensure that children have a good start in life.
The Education Act of Nunavut sets out that the education system will endeavour to have students graduating grade 12 bilingually in Inuktitut and English by 2020. Premier Aariak said that the first 20 years will be a challenge because the implementation process takes time. It takes time to create a Nunavut curriculum, to hire teachers who can accommodate that curriculum, and to develop Inuktitut education material.
The retention of teachers in Nunavut at times is a problem, in part, due to the lack of housing. For example, some teachers have to room with another teacher due to the housing shortage. This is an issue that the Government of Nunavut is constantly trying to address.
Premier Aariak noted Nunavut has a lot of dedicated teachers who spend much of their time fully engaged in the schools and in the community. For instance, in Taloyoak, Gina Pizzo, the Principal for the Netsilik School, was named one of Canada’s outstanding principals for 2012.
As well as dedicated teachers, the teaching of Inuit elders will play a part in developing a rich Nunavut education system.
Innait Inuksiutilirjit is the certification term for the elders to teach in the education system of Nunavut. This term translates as “Elders teaching the way of the Inuit”. During Premier Aariak’s speech at the Elders Teaching Certification Ceremony in Igloolik she said, “Your involvement in our schools helps us to better reflect the local needs and values of each individual community. It helps us to strengthen the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit foundation of our schools and encourages life-long learning.”
The Honourable Louis Tapardjuk, the MLA for Igloolik, also spoke at the elders teaching certification ceremony saying that the Nunavut Education Act calls for elders to be recognized. He said, “when I was growing up, our culture was belittled…with this new piece of legislation we are now given the right and dignity.”He added that elders,“ will now be working as equals.”
Premier Aariak ran for election because she was ready to serve Nunavummiut. The IQ concept of pijitsirarniq, guides her commitment to public service. Speaking to the Igloolik audience, Aariak said that there is at least one thing that stands out each day while she serves Nunavut as the leader of the government. On this particular day it was the certification of elders under the Education Act.
Currently based in Ottawa, freelance contributor Teevi Mackay is a graduate of Nunavut Sivuniksavut and in her 4th year studying Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.