Archived - Notes for an address at the Iqaluit Language Summit
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Iqaluit, February 9, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
It is a great honour for me to be here today. I would like to thank Minister Louis Tapardjuk for inviting me to participate in the Nunavut Language Summit, and I also want to note his lifelong commitment to his community and its culture. I couldn’t help but notice that, in his capacity as president of the Canadian Arctic Co-operative Federation, he wrote the forward to Edith Iglauer’s Inuit Journey, one of the books that I read 30 years ago in order to better understand the North.
Although this is my first visit here, I feel as though my links to your society have existed for a long time. My father visited the North often, and my parents were friends of James Houston, whose work with Inuit artists played an important role in sharing an appreciation of the North with the rest of Canada and, in fact, the rest of the world. I am a proud owner of prints by Pudlo Pudlat—one of the first artists to work with Houston—and by Shuvinai Ashoona. I am also a great admirer of the cinematic work of Zacharias Kunuk.
I have met my counterpart, Languages Commissioner Alexina Kublu, several times, and I was proud to contribute to the discussions on the Nunavut Official Languages Act that took place before the Senate last spring.
Over 45 years ago, in 1964, the Université de Montréal linguist Gilles-Raymond Lefebvre identified factors that he felt would be essential for the survival of Inuktitut.
“[One] factor,” he wrote, “is the will of the [Inuit] people to endure and to preserve ethnic characteristics […] as a minority.”Footnote 1
Lefebvre also made it clear that these issues would be determined by Inuit themselves, not by anyone else.
Almost half a century later, there is no doubt about the will of Inuit to endure. The United Nations has described Inuit as “a people who refuse to disappear.”
In 1977, when the creation of Nunavut was still a distant dream, John Amagoalik talked about the central elements of Inuit culture, acknowledging that some of the physical elements of this culture would never return.
“But the non-physical part of our culture—our attitude towards life, our respect for nature, our realization that others will follow who deserve the respect and concern of present generations—are deeply entrenched within ourselves. The presence of our ancestors within ourselves is very strong. The will to survive is there.”
When he identified the things that needed to be done to ensure this survival, he was very clear. “We must teach our children their mother tongue. We must teach them what they are and where they came from. We must teach them the values which have guided our society over the thousands of years. We must teach them our philosophies which go back beyond the memory of man.”Footnote 2
The Nunavut Official Languages Act and the Inuit Language Protection Act flow directly from John Amagoalik’s vision and reflect the determination that he showed in leading the Inuit land claims process that laid the groundwork for the creation of Nunavut.
Throughout the process of developing the Nunavut language legislation, I was impressed by the generous, inclusive approach that you have taken, and by the spirit of Qaujimajatuqangit (traditional knowledge) that has shaped your work.
Before discussing some of the details of our experience with language legislation, let me say how much I admire the approach you have taken, and how significant I feel that your efforts will be. The Inuit spirit of sharing (Ningiqtug) is clearly apparent in your administrative philosophy. The importance of what you are undertaking should not be underestimated. I can tell you that when I travel abroad, or speak to foreign diplomats, people are very interested in the future of Inuktitut and other Aboriginal languages in Canada, perhaps even more so than in the relationship between the two official languages that only recently became a part of life in Canada.
By setting the goal of making Inuktitut a language of service and a language of work, you are taking a radical step. I see it as a step that will have a dramatic impact on Inuit and on Canadian society as a whole.
As a people, you are writing Nunavut’s history and advancing a language that you have retained to a degree that is unique among Aboriginal peoples in North America. Today, Inuktitut shows promise, as a language that is being adapted to the needs of a modern society while retaining its ancestral roots.
As Sheila Watt-Cloutier, past International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (formerly Conference) has said, “Inuit are navigating rapid changes quickly. In the midst of this change, [they] need to be both resilient and adaptive. The connectedness of our world demands it.”Footnote 3
This connectedness is apparent in the relationship that has been nurtured between Inuit and the Anglophone and Francophone communities of Nunavut.
The federal government has a responsibility to assist you in protecting the rights of these three language communities. I was pleased to see that many of the recommendations made by the Francophone community, in particular, were integrated into the Act, and that all communities were consulted during the process. I was also pleased that my recommendations to Minister Tapardjuk in 2007 were taken into consideration. I believe and trust that such a spirit of cooperation, as well as the closeness between the language communities of Nunavut, will continue in the future, and that they will serve as a model for language relations everywhere in Canada. In her research, Ms. Watt-Cloutier also refers to the Arctic as “the canary in the global coal mine.” Although she was speaking of the globe’s environmental health, I believe this analogy applies just as well to language preservation.
Despite the importance for governments at all levels to recognize the rights of all three official language communities that make up Nunavut, I believe that everyone must recognize the emphasis that must be placed on Inuktitut and its place in society. Nunavut’s Official Languages Act should help in this regard. Particularly in larger government-centric communities, greater use of Inuktitut must be encouraged. This is an example of substantive equality; real equality cannot always be achieved through equal means.
With regard to language rights, the concept of "substantive equality" recognizes that some groups can sometimes be at a disadvantage when compared to others. The courts have clearly stated that this concept should not be used to reinforce the status quo by adopting a formal vision of equality. Rather, substantive equality requires that official language groups be treated differently, if necessary—according to their particular circumstances and needs—in order to obtain equivalent treatment. In practical terms, the principle of substantive equality seeks to remedy existing inequalities in order to achieve true equality.
More specifically, the principle of substantive equality also provides that institutionally-based language rights require government action for their implementation, and that the government therefore has obligations. Substantive equality seeks to validate the concept of the “equal partnership.” It means that the government must not act as though there were one primary official language; instead, it has a duty to accommodate where the use of other official languages is concerned. The governing principle is the equality of all official languages.
Language guarantees are vital not only to support communities and their languages, but also to sustain an important cultural objective. As the Supreme Court of Canada has said:
The importance of language rights is grounded in the essential role that language plays in human nature, development and dignity. It is through language that we are able to form concepts, to structure and order the world around us. Language bridges the gap between isolation and community, allowing humans to delineate the rights and duties they hold in respect of one another, and thus to live in society.Footnote 4
The goal is therefore to ensure that all citizens are able to participate fully and equally in all aspects of society.
Nunavut’s young people continue to learn the language of their ancestors. However, as is the case everywhere, the use of English has also become prevalent in Nunavut, and appropriate measures will have to be developed to ensure that youth have a strong knowledge of their ancestral tongue, as well as confidence in their second language (or third, or fourth). I am confident that the education system will allow future generations of Inuit leaders to govern Nunavut in their own language, and I will closely follow the changes that will be taking place under the Bilingual Education Strategy for Nunavut.
In some respects, your struggles share similarities with those of French- and English-speaking minority communities. The influence of English (or French, in the case of English-speaking minority communities) continues to have a stronghold on their public affairs and day-to-day life. The attraction to English North-American culture is particularly strong for youth in the North. However, in Nunavut, Inuit are a majority people. As such, it is important that pride in Inuit culture and heritage serve as a counterweight.
I believe the young people in this community are already very proud of their heritage. Most can speak Inuktitut. They also recognize the importance of the language as part of Inuit culture and heritage. However, simple recognition is not enough; they must be able to live the language every day and to maintain their mother tongue at a level where communication can take place with Elders or in complex conversations, as well as with their own children. Many young people will admit to choosing English as an “easier” way to communicate what they are trying to say. This is a tendency that needs to be addressed. After all, the Inuit language has been identified as one of the most vibrant indigenous languages in Canada.Footnote 5
Again, models for such situations exist elsewhere in Canada, particularly in Francophone communities where numbers are heavily affected by assimilation into the English-speaking majority.
The visible presence of language and culture in Nunavut’s physical environment and northern communities will contribute significantly to reversing the effects that one culture can have on another. French-speaking communities throughout the country have demonstrated that, by producing their own cultural activities, events and products, they are able to limit the influence of English. They have French-language singers, writers, poets, philosophers, schools, universities, newspapers and so on. They produce and consume their own culture through movies, books, theatre, music, education and thinkers. And so do Inuit. In this respect, the similarities are quite apparent.
Nunavut is a unique jurisdiction in Canada. It is neither predominantly English-speaking nor predominantly French-speaking. There is no other province or territory like it. It is my hope that Nunavut will continue to be a model for the rest of Canada, in light of its language policy and the respect it grants its three official language communities.
I am confident that you will find a way to meet the very specific challenges facing Inuit, because you possess the will to do so. There may be some aspects of our experience with language rights and language legislation that you may find useful and, if so, I would be delighted to share our expertise.
Thank you again for welcoming me with such open arms, during my first—and unfortunately short—visit to Nunavut. During my time here, I plan to further my understanding of Inuit culture as well as the challenges and best practices that you have demonstrated in terms of language policy.
- Footnote 1
Information Canada, “The Eskimo Language—Must It Die?” in The Unbelievable Land, Ottawa, 1964, p. 17.
- Footnote 2
“We Must Have Dreams,” first published in Inuit Today in 1977; reprinted in Robin Gedalof, ed., Paper Stays Put: A Collection of Inuit Writing, Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton, 1980, pp. 163-164.
- Footnote 3
Sheila Watt-Cloutier, “Bringing Inuit and Arctic Perspectives to the Global Stage: Lessons and Opportunities” in Proceedings—14th Inuit Studies Conference, compiled by Robert O. van Everdingen, 2004, p. 303.
- Footnote 4
Reference re Manitoba Language Rights,  1 S.C.R. 721 at p. 729.
- Footnote 5
M.J. Norris, “Canada’s Aboriginal Languages” in Canadian Social Trends, Statistics Canada, 1998, as quoted in Ian Martin and Shirley Tagalik, “Lessons Learned from Nunavut’s Language of Instruction Research Project” in Proceedings—14th Inuit Studies Conference, compiled by Robert O. van Everdingen, 2004, p. 168.