The languages of Nunavut: A delicate balance

On April 1, as Nunavut celebrated its 14th anniversary, the territory’s Official Languages Act finally came into force, five years after it was passed. To mark this historic event, here’s an overview of the unique linguistic situation in Nunavut.

Of Canada’s Aboriginal languages, the Inuit language is one of the healthiest. According to Statistics Canada, it is one of only three Aboriginal languages in the country whose long-term survival is likely.

Half of Canada’s Inuit population lives in Nunavut, a territory created in 1999 from a portion of the Northwest Territories. Since its creation, one of the priorities of the government of this young territory has been to promote and preserve Inuktut, the mother tongue of nearly 70% of the population of some 32,000. The Inuit language, Inuktut, consists of several dialects, two of which are spoken in Nunavut: Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.

Despite its vitality, the Inuit language has been slowly declining since the mid-20th century. Each census has shown that English is being used more and more in Nunavummiut households, and that fewer young people than elders declare Inuktut as their mother tongue. The use of English prevails in business, while media from the south are a continuously growing influence, especially on young people. In short, even though the use of Inuktut remains widespread, it is less certain that this language will be transmitted from one generation to the next.

Legislation to the rescue

The territory’s language policy is based on two key pieces of legislation passed in 2008: the Nunavut Official Languages Act and the Inuit Language Protection Act.

The first came into force this week, granting the Inuit language, English and French official status in the territory’s institutions, in the Legislative Assembly, and in Nunavut courts. It also enables Nunavummiut to receive some services from municipalities in English, French and the Inuit language in accordance with the rules of significant demand and the nature of the office.

The Inuit Language Protection Act states that the government must take positive action to promote the use of Inuktut in all sectors of Nunavut society. “While respecting the equality of all Official languages, the Inuit Language Protection Act gives Inuktut new prominence in education, work and daily life throughout the Territory,” says the Government of Nunavut in the Uqausivut Plan for implementing language legislation.

Stéphane Cloutier, Director of Official Languages with the Nunavut Department of Culture and Heritage, explains the philosophy behind Nunavut’s language policy: “We’re not excluding any other language; we’re merely asking people and organizations to include the Inuit language when they deliver services, out of respect for the majority of people for whom it is their preferred language.”

The Inuit Language Protection Act applies to public sector organizations (federal and territorial institutions), municipalities and private-sector organizations. However, the date when the private sector organizations must provide services in the Inuit language has not been established yet.

The key: education

As you may suspect, education is of considerable importance in the government’s action plan to preserve Inuktut. The Inuit Language Protection Act gives parents the right to have their children educated in this language. Instruction in Inuktut has been available up to Grade 3 since 2009, and by 2019 it should be available to all grades.

“During the consultations, the government listened to the people of the territory,” Cloutier says, “and they clearly said they want to ensure that their kids have a strong foundation in their mother tongue, but also want their children to become world citizens and be able to function in English.”

Charlie Awa, a 19-year-old Iqaluit resident, says that the first language he learned was Inuktitut, but now he speaks English with his friends and at work because that makes things easier.

“I was mostly speaking Inuktitut growing up because I was raised with elders,” says Awa, originally from the village of Pond Inlet, at the northern tip of Baffin Island. “I didn’t really speak much English as a kid.”

But once he entered high school, English became the language he spoke every day with friends and teachers, the majority of whom were Anglophones. “I mostly speak to my friends in English because they can’t understand my dialect. We [all] have different dialects.”

Standardization: a necessary evil?

Awa’s experience shows how necessary it is to reverse the course so school becomes a way to ensure the future of Inuktut rather than an assimilation factor. It also illustrates the problem posed by diversity of dialects.

While they have many aspects in common, the dialects of the Inuit language vary in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and certain points of grammar, which sometimes makes it difficult for members of different communities to understand each other. To add to the complexity, two writing systems coexist: one uses the Roman alphabet, the other uses syllabics.

For a number of years, there has been talk of standardizing the language and adopting a single writing system to facilitate communication. However, these proposed solutions are not universally accepted, because some fear that they may lead to the loss of the uniqueness at the core of the culture of local Inuit communities.

While the work to revitalize Inuktut is complex, the still significant number of speakers, the introduction of language legislation and the population’s support for language policies are factors that bode well for the future. As the Department of Culture explains, there is still a balance to be found:

“Through song, story, and conversation, we reveal our cultural identities. The air of Nunavut is filled with sounds, resonating in four languages. Often, the words begin to meld together. The balance between Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun, English, and French is a delicate one. Language is dynamic, capable of adapting and evolving.”

Nunavut Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, quoted in Inuktut Uqausiit (Inuit Languages) in Canada – History and Contemporary Developments

Published on Friday, April 05, 2013

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