Western Nunavut’s Inuit languages need support, KIA hears

Kitikmeot Inuit Association AGM delegates say use at home is fading


Julia Ogina, Jason Tologanak and Sarah Jancke of the Kitikmeot Inuit Association's social and cultural development department, talk about the association's many language programs Oct. 14 at the KIA annual general meeting in Cambridge Bay. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Julia Ogina, Jason Tologanak and Sarah Jancke of the Kitikmeot Inuit Association’s social and cultural development department, talk about the association’s many language programs Oct. 14 at the KIA annual general meeting in Cambridge Bay. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

CAMBRIDGE BAY — Concern about the poor state of their Inuit languages in western Nunavut kept delegates to the Kitikmeot Inuit Association annual general meeting in Cambridge Bay talking around the table late into the evening Oct. 14.

Inuinnaqtun in the western part of the Kitikmeot region is waning — in 2012, as few as 77 people spoke the language in Cambridge Bay.

And, according to figures shared at the KIA meeting, the region’s other dialect, Netsilingmiutitut, is also eroding in the eastern part of the Kitikmeot.

Between 1996 and 2006 there was a “dramatic language loss in the home” — in Kugaaruk from 47 per cent to 23 per cent, in Gjoa Haven from 29 per cent to 15 per cent and in Taloyoak from 33 per cent to 20 per cent.

Jane Putuguq of Gjoa Haven, an elder delegate to the AGM, told those at the meeting that it’s “very challenging” to revitalize the language — offering up her own experience as an example.

Unilingual, she spoke only Inuktitut to her children, but her grandchildren don’t speak Inuktitut at all. That’s a difficult situation, she said.

Ruth Qirqqut, a women’s delegate, also of Gjoa Haven, said she has to use sign language to speak to her grandchildren.

And Bessie Sitatak, a women’s delegate from Kugluktuk, described how as a child, sent away to residential school, she was taught to forget her language.

She eventually returned to her parents’ outpost camp at Byron Bay, she said, where she relearned to speak her mother tongue.

Despite all that, Sitatak still ended up speaking English to her children.

But the KIA’s department of social and cultural development has an ambitious plan to try to reinforce Inuit languages in the Kitikmeot region.

Among the observations from participants in KIA community language workshops: not enough is being done in the home to support language revitalization. Also, English dominates the pubic domain and government action is “necessary but not sufficient to result in Inuit language revitalization.”

“In short, more had to be done, especially in the home and public domains, if Inuit language revitalization was to occur in any meaningful way,” said Julia Ogina, program co-ordinator of elders, language and cultural programs.

Ogina urged delegates at the AGM to support resolutions which would:

• see the KIA put more focus on language-revitalization measures, such as language promoters, language centers, regional radio service and traditional camps;

• support a three- to five-year project for “language promoters” in three Kitikmeot communities including Cambridge Bay where the Canadian High Arctic Research Station will see an influx of new residents into the community after CHARS opens in 2017;

• lobby the Government of Nunavut and the federal government for more language promotion money;

• continue support to local language committees; and,

• ensure the KIA leads by example: “the aim of a fluently bilingual organization should be the desired outcome.”

“If we don’t use Inuit languages in this room, the Inuit languages will die,” said Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. president Cathy Towtongie, who spoke to the AGM Oct. 15.

Maori in New Zealand revived their language, she said, so “we can do it here.”

Towtongie also urged delegates to send their children to school to learn language skills citing the example of Greenland where committees follow up on students who don’t go to school.

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