Nunavut’s languages commissioner explains language laws to Iqaluit city council
“We should do more to protect our language”
Nunavut’s official languages commissioner reminded the City of Iqaluit on May 14 of its obligation to advance and protect the use of the Inuit language throughout the community, including both private business and public administration.
In a presentation to councillors Commissioner Sandra Inutiq described the territorial government’s commitment to protect the language under the Official Language Act, which came into force April 1, and the Inuit Language Protection Act, which has progressed in stages.
“We should do more to protect our language,” Inutiq said at the May 14 council meeting. “That’s why we made these two acts. We must also educate the city of Iqaluit on what can be done.”
The government’s main concern, she said, is the use of English at the expense of the Inuit language.
Defined in language legislation as “Inuktut,” the Inuit language encompasses Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun and all related dialects. Declining use of the language seems especially pronounced in the territorial capital.
The laws are meant to allow Nunavummiut to function in the Inuit language, particularly those who do not speak any other languages, Inutiq said. Yet such unilingual speakers who come to Iqaluit from other Nunavut communities “are sometimes in a difficult situation, when they go to the go to the bank for example.”
“I’m sure it must be hard to be a unilingual in Iqaluit,” she said. “They must think they are not important enough, if they only use their own language,” and not English.
“We should be able to speak our own language.”
The Official Languages Act identifies Inuktut, English and French as Nunavut’s official languages, with speakers having the right to use each in public agencies and private businesses.
Councillors agreed on the importance of ensuring use of the Inuit language at every level, but cautioned that private businesses could not do it on their own.
“It’s just impossible to do,” said Coun. Kenny Bell, who then asked if the government could provide help in allowing businesses to achieve the goal.
Inutiq replied that an implementation plan for the language acts mentions that the territorial government “will provide assistance to the municipalities,” but it does not give specifics.
The Department of Community and Government Services “is currently preparing a contribution agreement package for the municipalities,” Inutiq said, and promised to provide points of contact to the municipalities.
The commissioner also pointed to the need to standardize road signs in Inuktitut.
“There are six different ways of saying ‘stop’ in the Inuktitut language,” she said, adding that she has seen all variations in use.
Confusing terminology also appears in other signage, she said, from speed limits to warning signs. The Inuit Language Authority is ready to help municipalities with this, she said.
Asked about a possible shortage of translators in Nunavut, Inutiq said the Inuit Language Authority is responsible for keeping a database of qualified interpreters.
Inutiq’s Languages Commissioner’s Office has found that enough qualified translators should be available, and is now reviewing how to identify all of them in the database.
Inuktitut-speaking councillors said they were thankful for the government’s commitment to preserve and reverse the decline of the Inuit language, but added they have felt the rapid decline in their own lifetimes.
Coun. Simon Nattaq said he couldn’t tell fellow speakers how to properly pronounce or use certain terms anymore, suggesting that English-dominated media were partly to blame.
Coun. Joanasie Akumalik said that Iqaluit’s diversity of people, including residents from other communities, has favoured the use of English.
“They come from all over Nunavut, and have many different ways of speaking,” he said. “People speak English to understand each other better.”
Coun. Terry Dobbin put in a word of caution against going heavy-handed on language laws.
“A lot of mining companies don’t like to be dictated to,” he said, hopeful that the laws would not discourage businesses from investing in Nunavut.
“As they say, social justice costs money,” Inutiq replied. “At the end of the day, you’re faced with a choice on whether you want to serve Nunavummiut, or the people outside Nunavut.”