Inuit get a voice in first federal Indigenous languages commissioner’s office

Nunavik’s Robert Watt is 1 of 3 new directors who will work to preserve Indigenous languages

Robert Watt, seen in this undated file photo at his Kuujjuaq bakery, is now one of three directors appointed to Canada’s first Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages (File Photo)

By Mélanie Ritchot

One of four people working as directors in Canada’s first federal office of Indigenous languages is Inuk.

Nunavik’s Robert Watt, a former school board commissioner, will now be working to preserve Inuit languages and dialects across Inuit Nunangat in his new role as director in the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages, Steven Guilbeault, the minister of Canadian Heritage, announced Monday in a news conference.

“We are here to support you because we are working for you,” Watt said. “It is our language, our voice, we have to make sure it survives.”

Robert Watt is pictured here before a northern tour to gather statements from survivors of Canada’s residential school system in his prior role as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Inuit Sub-Commission co-chair. (Photo courtesy of the TRC)

Watt has organized terminology workshops, created databases for interpreters and personally helped create and teach an adult education translation and interpretation program, a Canadian Heritage news release stated.

He used to be the president and commissioner of Nunavik’s school board, Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, where he advanced Inuktitut language through school programs, the release states.

Before that, Watt collected nearly 800 statements from residential school survivors while he worked as co-director of the Inuit Sub-Commission at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Watt also facilitated the first national gathering of Inuit throat singers and “paved the way” to the Government of Quebec granting throat singing special cultural heritage status.

“Since his early career [Watt] has been involved in promoting, protecting and preserving Inuktitut,” the release states.

Before the announcement was made, Nunavut’s languages commissioner Karliin Aariak said she hoped someone from Nunavut or an Inuktut-speaking community would be selected for one of the four director roles.

Aariak congratulated the first commissioner of Indigenous languages as well as the new directors in an email.

“I look forward to possible future collaborations,” she wrote.

Watt is one of three directors who work under the commissioner of the new office — Ronald E. Ignace, a member of the Secwepemc Nation in British Columbia.

“For those of us who have passionately cared about and fought for the future of our Indigenous languages, getting here has consumed nearly a lifetime,” Ignace said during the news conference.

“As we reclaim and rebuild our languages, there is much work ahead of us,” he said. “Some of our languages are hanging by a thread, having lost all or nearly all of their speakers.”

The other directors are Georgina Liberty and Joan Greyes, which means there is a First Nations, Métis and Inuk director on board.

Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, also spoke at the conference.

“This is indeed a very special day,” he said.

Nunavut is unique because it is the only region in Canada where Indigenous languages are spoken by the majority, but that isn’t the case in all of Inuit Nunangat, he said.

“Each one of our regions ranges in a state of maintenance, revitalization and reclamation.”

“I’m not trying to put too much pressure on the directors and the commissioner, but this is something that we have been working towards for such a long time,” Obed said.

The creation of the new Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages is a result of the Liberal government’s Indigenous Languages Act, Bill C-91, which was passed in June 2019 and includes $333.7 million in funding over a five-year period — the duration of the appointees’ terms.

The Department of Canadian Heritage held virtual consultations with Indigenous communities across Canada while creating the new office, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada also called for consultation when choosing the commissioner.

The new office will operate independently from the Canadian government and is meant to support Indigenous peoples in their self-determining efforts to reclaim, revitalize, maintain and strengthen Indigenous languages, according to the release.

Doing research and creating culturally appropriate dispute resolution services are also parts of the office’s mandate.

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(10) Comments:

  1. Posted by Suqa on

    I’m surprise it’s not the other 3 recycles. It’s who you know with top jobs like this. This guy has been around jobs so much. It’s either Eva, Karlin, M.Simon or yes Robert. Are there any new people or other people who can get promoted?? Natan, you are so out of touch with Communities.

    • Posted by The NunaBot on

      Natan is very good at communicating “his reality” … which beneath the layers of language he relishes is not much more than collection of progressive clichés and ‘truisms’ which he effectively wields through mimicry, bestowing an aura of profundity he doesn’t really deserve.

      • Posted by articrick on

        He seems out of touch to me, is his time almost up yet?

        • Posted by Lahahoozer on

          Time’s up for giving unlimited space to the haters – nobody wants to hear it let alone read it. Time to go shout your bs into some other void or actually do something about it. Run for election or write to the boards.
          CBC is implementing a great idea and it would also be nice to have a break from the comments section for awhile on Nunatsiaq News stories. Give leadership the break they need from constant degradation and give readers the option of engaging in thoughtful comments and conversations or just take it away for awhile.

          • Posted by Pro Bono Troll on

            I have long thought the CBC comment section on facebook has been a complete sewer that not only adds zero value, but is filled with obfuscation and cognitive distortion. Nunatsiaq’s is not as bad, but it can reflect some version of the same at times.

            This forum is a different animal though. Whatever goes up has to pass the moderators first, so it is not quite the same free for all where genuine idiots and paid trolls mingle and feed off each other. I honestly applaud them for turning it off.

          • Posted by Sounds good on

            Ya I mean people who are elected leaders shouldn’t have to read comment and critique, they didn’t sign up for that. Cbc just finding new ways to cut budgets and jobs I guess.

            • Posted by Sounds BAD! on

              All public officials that run for office do indeed or at least should be aware that they did sign up for critiquing.

              What a loose comment.

              Maybe “Sounds Good” is one of those electorates that figure once they cast a vote, their input into democracy is over until the next election.

              Part of protecting a democracy involves keeping an eye on those elected and call them out when they’re straying from the mandates the electorate gave them.

  2. Posted by West Nunavut ( Kitikmeot ) on

    Congratulations to the new directors of this new office of indigenous languages.
    I hope you have proper programs for school-children and non-Inuit people who want to
    learn Inuktitut. We have been waiting a long time.
    So looking forward to the future, I really wish you all well !!

  3. Posted by Citizen on

    This is great news! I want to live in a country where indigenous languages are thriving and taught in all schools. Congratulations to all three directors …you have a big task ahead!

  4. Posted by Hope Hope on

    What power will they have. Provinces and territories make their own language policies. Quebec for instance is French only province. I hope this office amounts to something worthy.


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