From language shaming to lateral love: what Inuktut needs to grow

“Why put yourself out there to be hurt so badly?”


Years after Alethea Arnaquq-Baril first carved out a role in Nunavut’s film scene, the Iqaluit documentary maker’s work has gained recognition from a growing audience across the country and around the globe.

With that exposure, media interviews and appearances have become common, although Arnaquq-Baril did something earlier this month that she’s never done before.

Arnaquq-Baril was invited to sit in on a panel discussion on the Inuit Broadcasting Corp.’s television show Qanuq Isumavit—an hour and half-long, live debate on the sealing industry, which took place entirely in Inuktitut.

The decision to do that was years in the making. Though she grew up in an Inuktitut-speaking home, Arnaquq-Baril spent extended periods of her childhood and youth in the South; each time she returned to Nunavut, she’d have to re-learn parts of the language. To this day, she says she’s never regained full fluency.

“I work really hard at it,” she said. “But as Inuit, we’re often so critical of each other.”

Arnaquq-Baril said she can recall “language shaming” as far back as her childhood; some of it even directed to her South Baffin dialect.

“Even when I was very fluent as a child, I remember children coming from other communities up island and making fun of our Iqaluit dialect and saying that we don’t speak proper Inuktitut,” she said.

“I found that extremely insulting and I didn’t know how to defend myself.”

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril appears on Qanuq Isumavit earlier this month with seal hunter Joanasie Illauq and host Jerry Ell. (PHOTO COURTESY OF IBC)

Even the way she pronounced the word igloo—which, with South Baffin’s simplified consonant clusters, sounds like illu—drew comments that her speech was “lazy.”

The message she took from that over time: if you don’t speak well enough in Inuktitut, you don’t have a voice.

“Why put yourself out there to be hurt so badly?” she said. “Only to be told you’re not Inuk enough?”

Years ago, Arnaquq-Baril discovered something else—the term “lateral violence,” used to describe abuse directed to one’s own peers or community members. It’s often used to describe hateful behaviour within Indigenous communities and has roots in colonialism and oppression.

Now that she understands the concept, Arnaquq-Baril said she can recognize more quickly when it’s happening and react to it—like when language shaming happens.

“It really holds us back,” Arnaquq-Baril said. “So I’ve made a conscious decision to not give a crap.”

Arnaquq-Baril said she has reached what she calls “a breaking point,” at the same time when many Inuit would say their language has too.

Inuktut inspires pride and a sense of guardianship among its speakers. It’s the second most spoken Indigenous language among Canada’s Indigenous groups, which may contribute to the pressure some Inuit feel to speak it.

But it’s a troubled language too, gradually declining in use. In 2006, 68.8 per cent of the Inuit population could speak Inuktut, a percentage that fell to 63.3 per cent in 2011.

Nunavut has its own language debate brewing; most recently around the territorial government’s newly-tabled amendments to its Education Act, which will delay plans to implement Inuktut instruction in grades 4 through 9 until 2030.

Maintaining the language is a preoccupation in much of the Inuit Nunangat, although the discussion has become more of a national one, with beefed up federal funding—$89 million over the next three years—and a soon-to-be tabled Indigenous Languages Act.

Natan Obed fields questions about his Inuktitut skills at ITK’s September 2015 election, when Obed was elected president. (FILE PHOTO)

A year and a half into Natan Obed’s term as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Inuk leader has played a role, championing a new relationship between the federal government and Inuit, one that includes reconciliation and cultural equity.

His leadership falls at a key moment in the organization’s efforts to explore a shift to Roman orthography to standardize all written Inuktut across the country.

On the ground in Inuit communities, however, language remains a divisive issue.

“I still think that it’s something that people really don’t want to talk about it,” Obed said. “It’s allowed people to draw a distinction on how Inuk you are.”

Obed should know; the ITK election in which he won the leadership focused largely on his mastery of Inuktut, still a work in progress for the Inuit leader. Cathy Towtongie, then-president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., wanted to know how Obed would communicate with elders? And had he maintained his Inuit culture when he went south to study at a Boston university?

Many have said since that his calm demeanor and long-term commitment to social issues helped him win the presidency that day, though Obed doesn’t believe attitudes have changed much.

“It’s tough. In Iqaluit, there are lines that are drawn right away between those who do and those who don’t speak Inuktitut,” he said. “And there sometimes isn’t a lot of sympathy for Inuit who don’t.”

It’s no coincidence that when Obed talks about language loss and its roots in colonialism, he often refers to his late father.

Enoch Obed’s family was relocated from its Labrador outpost camp when he just was a boy; soon after he went away to residential school for almost a decade, where he lost most of his Inuktut. He struggled to heal from the upheaval and re-learn the language, though never spoke it to his own children.

It’s not an uncommon story; a colonial legacy that’s left scars in Inuit communities across the country.

But one issue—language—has dogged both father and son’s career in Inuit politics over several decades.

Obed knows this because he’s gone back through the Labrador Inuit Association records to discover his father was disqualified from running for its presidency in the 1980s because people said he wasn’t fluent.

Thirty years later, Obed has worked to end what he calls a negative cycle. He’s also ensured his own two young sons speak Inuktitut.

“But there’s nowhere I can send my boys to school where Inuktut is the dominant language of instruction past Grade 4,” he noted. “We haven’t put enough investment in our language; we don’t treat it the same way as English or French, and we haven’t imagined the same type of solutions.”

A hurtful debate over language proficiency only slows that work, Obed added. “No matter who you talk to, all Inuit want culture and language,” he said.


The way Inuktut is taught, whether it’s passed from parent to child or from instructor to student, is its own unique pursuit, said Iqaluit language instructor Leena Evic, who’s taught Obed and hundreds of other Inuktut language students.

It’s about seeing the big picture: if a seamstress is showing someone how to make an amautik, she won’t start piece by piece, Evic said. “She’ll show me the whole picture first. That’s how I start learning.”

And that’s how the founder of the Iqaluit-based Pirurvik Centre approaches teaching Inuktitut to Inuit, whom she says have a distinct way of learning.

While the centre once mostly catered to a qallunaat clientele, largely government workers new to the North, the centre has since developed courses tailored to Inuit second language speakers.

The courses approach language learning as Inuit would approach putting up their tent on the land.

The beginners’ level, attavik, is looking for the best ground to pitch the tent, Evic said; then kajusivik, ensuring the learning builds from a strong foundation. Naarivik, the advanced level, takes on cultural topics and what Evic describes as “authentic vocabulary.”

“We are treading on a new path so it’s like going into an unknown approach, but that’s what it takes to either make changes or to initiate a new way of doing things,” she said.

Evic considers Piruvik’s language programs key to addressing a gradual decline in Inuktut, but acknowledges the centre’s limitations as a private organization.

“As the saying goes, some things are never too late to start on,” she said.


Alexia Galloway-Alainga is sounding out the words for patience in Inuktut, and it’s a lesson in just that. Qinuisaarniq and Utaqqittiarniq, she carefully enunciates.

The Iqaluit student, who’s studying social work in Ottawa, follows the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s social feed and their Word of the Day feature. She records herself saying the phrases and posts them to her Instagram account, partly as a way to share Inuktut with her followers but also as a way to gather feedback.

“Qinui-saa-rniq long A sound and not the N,” replies one follower. “Keep it up!!”

It was moving away from Nunavut that triggered a desire to speak Inuktut—a language Galloway-Alainga, now 19, grew up with but never spoke fluently.

Galloway-Alainga’s grandmother, for example, adopted a baby who’s only learning Inuktitut.

“So I find it very important to try and learn just so I can communicate with them,” she said. “But as someone who aspires to being a leader in Nunavut, I really felt the heat of that.”

A trilingual street sign warns drivers in Iqaluit to slow down. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)

If a lack of Inuktut has proven itself a barrier for some Inuit, that’s not been the experience for Joseph Murdoch-Flowers.

Murdoch-Flowers was born and raised in Labrador; finished high school in Kuujjuaq and studied and lived for years in Montreal before moving to Iqaluit to work as a lawyer. He speaks English, French, some Spanish and very basic Inuktitut.

“People have asked me questions along the way about why I know other languages but not Inuktitut, and I think implicit in those questions is….” Murdoch-Flowers said, pausing, “I often have the sense that people see that I’m deficient in some way.”

Discussions around Inuktitut are often framed that way, he said—assuming that something is absent. Murdoch-Flowers has been at the receiving end of hurtful comments about his language skills from other Inuit, though it’s something he’s learned to put aside.

“I’ve certainly thought that it would be great to be able to speak it, because it would bring a lot of value to my life,” he said. “But I feel really good about the way I am.”

Like in any distinct group, Inuit culture is as complex and diverse as the people who inhabit it.

“The fact is, I’m Inuk—there’s no getting around that,” Murdoch-Flowers said. “And my unique relationship with Inuktitut the language is part of the experience of Inuit culture and identity.”

The challenge that leaders and artists like Obed and Arnaquq-Baril have taken on is how to convince Inuit of the benefits of solidarity within that culture.

How did lateral violence develop as a response to issues like language? Arnaquq-Baril sat on that question for some time until an Inuk friend offered a helpful perspective.

“That lashing out, those hurtful comments—it’s not because they want to hurt people,” Arnaquq-Baril said. “It’s because they want to protect what someone else took away from them.”

It happens everywhere in cultures that are threatened, she said.

So, Arnaquq-Baril has decided to champion a new concept she’s heard about: lateral love—the idea of “building up” her fellow Inuit. It’s an idea you’ll see attached to a hashtag on social media, but it has much deeper meaning and, Arnaquq-Baril hopes, a much wider reach.

She reflects back on her live broadcast on Qanuq Isumavit.

“I was nervous going in, but the host and panelists were very understanding and supportive of me speaking in Inuktitut,” she said. “I told them I might struggle and that they should just jump in and help me if I can’t think of a word or phrase. They were great examples of lateral love.”

In the end, she didn’t need any help at all.

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