A good start on language policy


Nunavut’s language commissioner, Eva Aariak, last week offered the Nunavut legislative assembly a chance to do something that, at long last, the territory’s residents will find relevant to their lives. Given that the assembly has been in existence for two and a half years, that’s none too soon.

In a presentation to the assembly’s special committee on the Official Languages Act on Jan. 18, Aariak proposed two things:

• a set of amendments to the current Official Languages Act that clarifies the “official” status of Inuktitut, English and French; and

• the creation of an entirely new law she proposes to call the “Inuktitut Protection Act.”

Some people will welcome her proposals; some people will hate them. Nearly everyone will want to tinker with parts of them.

But Aariak deserves praise for giving us something we never had before: a set of specific, concrete ideas that can help Nunavummiut begin talking to each other about how to protect the Inuit language in Nunavut.

From the very beginning, the Nunavut territory was intended to be an instrument for the preservation of the Inuit language. That is one of the prime justifications for its very existence. If the Nunavut legislative assembly and the Nunavut government ignore this obligation, then the creation of Nunavut will have been a waste of human energy. MLAs should not have to be told that action on language policy ought to be a matter of the highest priority for them.

Doing this, however, means they must tread into areas of controversy that in the past have paralyzed attempts to reach consensus on language issues. Again, Aariak has made some honest attempts to point us out of these quagmires.

For example, she proposes a way of clarifying the status of Inuinnaqtun by suggesting that Inuinnaqtun be deemed a dialect of Inuktitut, not a separate language. To do that, she suggests that the Official Languages Act be amended to include the following words: ” ‘Inuktitut’ includes all the dialects spoken in Nunavut, including Inuinnaqtun.”

She side-steps the decades-old syllabics-versus-Roman-orthography debate by proposing that Inuinnaqtun “shall always” be written in Roman orthography, but may be written in syllabics provided a version in Roman orthography of equal prominence appears adjacent to it.

It’s likely, though, that Aariak’s proposal for a separate “Inuktitut Protection Act” will generate the greatest amount of controversy and debate.

The language commissioner says the assembly should create a second law to provide specific protections for Inuktitut not necessarily available to other languages. Since any changes to the existing Official Languages Act require the approval of Parliament in addition to approval by the Nunavut legislative assembly, she says these special measures would be easier to codify were they in a separate act.

Nunavut residents will surely have a lot to say about Aariak’s proposals for the regulation of signs mounted on the outside walls of public buildings — especially signs used by private businesses and non-government organizations. They’ll also have a lot to say about her proposals on the use of Inuktitut within commercial enterprises.

It’s inevitable that many people will draw comparisons between Quebec’s language law, Bill 101, and the language measures that Aariak would apply to private businesses. But it’s worth keeping in mind that her proposals fall short of Bill 101’s requirements for the prominence of French on commercial signs in Quebec. For example, in Quebec, French words on outdoor signs must be displayed using letters that are at least twice the size of English words.

Nunavut’s language commissioner, on the other hand, proposes the mandatory use of Inuktitut on all outdoor signs, but says other languages may be used on them as long as Inuktitut is equally prominent. She also proposes that interior signs within private businesses — greater than a certain size to be determined by government — appear in Inuktitut. She also says that “loudspeaker announcements within the retail space of a commercial establishment” be made in Inuktitut in addition to other languages.

Yet another proposal would require that all licensed pharmacies in Nunavut provide oral and written information about prescriptions in Inuktitut. She suggests pharmacies that don’t have the ability to do this should not have their licences granted or renewed.

Some private businesses won’t like some or all of these requirements, and will argue that self-interest and the competitive marketplace should determine the extent to which commercial enterprises display various languages. Some business people will argue that since most of their customers are Inuit, it’s in their interest to display signs in Inuktitut anyway, and that the specific needs of customers should determine the use of Inuktitut within their businesses. Some businesses will argue that these measures would create costs that will increase the prices that consumers pay for groceries and other retail goods.

It should be a lively debate.

Aariak would also include measures aimed at creating a right to work in Inuktitut. The new Inuktitut protection law would declare that all Nunavummiut would have the right to “carry out their duties” in Inuktitut. Employers would be prohibited from firing or demoting any worker simply because that worker has “insufficient” knowledge of a language other than Inuktitut.

Furthermore, any employer would be prohibited from making the knowledge or specific level of knowledge in a language other than Inuktitut a condition of employment. The only exceptions to this are jobs in which the employer is able to demonstrate that the knowledge of a language other than Inuktitut is “integral.”

Here, the legislature must exercise great care to ensure that such legislation is able to survive a court challenge based on the Charter of Rights. Most Nunavummiut are likely to agree wholeheartedly with the broad principles behind these proposals, but when the legislation is written, the territorial government’s lawyers should study the wording with extreme diligence.

Yet another major proposal contained in the language commissioner’s submission is for the creation of an “Inuktitut Language Authority” operating under the office of the language commissioner. This new bureaucratic entity would make recommendations about terminology, do research, make recommendations about the spelling of place names, and generally provide support to those who want to enrich and strengthen Inuktitut.

She also recommends that a language policy secretariat — similar to the current decentralization secretariat — be set up under either the Department of the Executive or the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth. A cabinet minister would then be put in charge of the language secretariat and made accountable for carrying out the government’s language laws.

This is a long-overdue measure that the government should have done as of April 1, 1999. Incredibly, there is still no single minister responsible for all official language matters within the territorial government — which helps to explain why the Nunavut government has done next to nothing over the past two and a half years in the development of language policy.

But if the government accepts this recommendation, the language secretariat must operate within the executive department, not CLEY, and be handled by the premier. If language issues are to get the attention they deserve, the cabinet minister with the greatest amount of clout and status must handle them. Within government, cabinet ministers measure their worth by the size of their budgets, which means the tiny CLEY department and its issues usually get the least attention. Language is a government-wide issue, and therefore must be handled by the only minister with government-wide responsibilities — the premier.

The language commissioner’s weakest recommendations are those dealing with the enforcement of language laws, especially with respect to violations of the law committed by private businesses.

She suggests no fines or other penalties. Instead, she proposes that after an investigation of a complaint involving government or a commercial enterprise, the language commissioner report her findings to the premier, a deputy minister and the “administrative head of the commercial enterprise involved.” This would include the language commissioner’s recommendations on what action should be taken.

This is unacceptable, for two reasons. First, without clear penalties, such legislation will likely be unenforceable. If language protection laws are worth having, they must have teeth.

Second, cabinet ministers and unelected bureaucrats must not be responsible for making judgments about whether someone has broken the law. That function can only be carried out by the judicial branch of government, within the courts.

To give such power to the executive branch of government would set an extremely dangerous precedent. The premier, or any other territorial government official, must not be allowed to become a judge, jury and prosecutor all at the same time. Private citizens accused of violating the language law must have the right to defend themselves in court before an impartial judge. If not, the law will deserve to be declared unconstitutional under the Charter of Rights.

Nunavut’s language commissioner has, however, made an excellent start toward prodding the Nunavut legislative assembly into a consideration of language policy.

Let the discussion begin.


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