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Like Inuktitut, this language also carries Inuit culture

Project documents unique Inuit sign language


Dr. Jamie MacDougall likes to joke that he "discovered" Inuit Sign Language the same way Christopher Columbus "discovered" America – by getting lost.

The joke, of course, is that neither of these were real "discoveries," for anyone besides the Qallunaat.

The indigenous peoples of the Americas knew where they were, and knew intimately the land they still call home. Likewise, deaf Inuit have always made daily use of their own sign language, and continue to use and develop it regularly with family and friends.

Nevertheless, MacDougall's "discovery" led to a multi-year project, now supported by the Nunavut Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth (CLEY) and the Department of Justice, to document the use of sign language unique to deaf Inuit people, and to provide written and audio-visual learning materials to support it.

Like Inuktitut, ISL is an indigenous language under pressure, since many deaf Inuit experienced removal to southern schools for the deaf in recent decades where American Sign Language became their first language.

Seven of the deaf Inuit who use Inuit Sign Language and who participated in the project were at the Nunavut legislature last week to help Dr. MacDougall make a presentation to MLAs.

The group displayed the new ISL materials they helped develop, including a poster, an illustrated glossary and a DVD that shows the participants telling personal stories using either ISL or American Sign Language, accompanied by simultaneous translation from one to the other.

It's "the ‘oral history' of deaf Nunavummiut in three communities, Taloyoak, Rankin Inlet and Pangnirtung," says MacDougall in his introduction to the material.

The printed glossary illustrates how to form 36 different words, shown side-by-side in both Inuit Sign Language and American Sign Language versions.

"We've been very involved in this project," said Tocasie Burke, the manager of Inuktitut affairs with the CLEY department. "It is important to educate people that there is such a thing as Inuit Sign Language. We had no material even to show it existed until this."

Like spoken and written Inuktitut, she said, ISL has a special focus on words for animals and other aspects of the environment.

"It carries the culture," Burke said.

The preservation of ISL and the availability of interpreters to ensure access to justice, education and health services may also be considered a human rights issue for deaf Nunavummiut.

"If full access to Charter rights under sections 14 and 15(1) is to be guaranteed," said MacDougall in a paper on the subject for the federal department of justice, "then concrete steps will have to be taken to ensure that the unique communication needs of the deaf people of Nunavut are addressed."

The eureka moment for MacDougall, who runs the Canadian Deafness Research and Training Institute and teaches at Montreal's McGill University, came in 1997.

He was in Baker Lake to assess Inuit hearing impairment, and went out on a caribou hunt with several people, including Bobby Suwarak, who is deaf.

A storm came up, and as conditions and visibility worsened, Suwarak and his colleagues began communicating in a sign language that was completely different from anything MacDougall had seen before.

They had been shy about using it in front of him, he said, until the situation became critical.

"I became very excited," he recalls. "I said, ‘What's this?'"

From that "discovery" evolved a project to document Inuit Sign Language, and to prepare the glossary and DVD.

Deaf people in all parts of the world have developed their own sign languages, appropriate to their cultural contexts, MacDougall said.

In Nunavut, MacDougall has been gratified to see how the family members and friends of deaf people have accepted them and learned to speak ISL.

"This is special," he said, noting that in southern Canada, deaf people often feel isolated from the rest of the community, who are unable to use the common American Sign Language, and generally less interested in learning to do so.

"The Inuit have something to teach the rest of Canada" in this regard, said MacDougall. Down south about one person in a thousand is deaf, but in Nunavut "we think the ratio is about three times greater."

Oh, and incidentally, the ISL sign to indicate Jamie MacDougall involves circling a pointing finger around the crown of the head, a reference to his gleaming scalp.

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