Inuktitut on rise in Nunavik

Region is strongest area for any aboriginal language in Canada

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

ODILE NELSON

Nunavik is Canada’s strongest regional bastion of any aboriginal language, according to the latest 2001 census report released by Statistics Canada last week.

The report on Canadian language, mobility and migration trends found the number of Nunavimmiut who declared Inuktitut as their mother tongue has grown by 12.2 per cent since 1996. It is the largest regional increase for any aboriginal language across Canada.

A speaker’s mother tongue is the language he or she regularly uses in the family home.

Claude Yelle, an analyst with Statistics Canada, said Nunavik’s increase marks a significant trend because it is higher than the region’s population growth.

“When we look at the mother tongue the increase of total number of people who have declared Inuktitut as mother tongue, for Nunavik, it is an increase of 12.2 per cent between 2001 and the last census in 1996. This increase is higher than the total population, which was 11.2 per cent [so the jump can not be attributed to population alone],” he said.

Thirty per cent of Canadians who declared Inuktitut as their mother tongue live in Nunavik while 64 per cent reside in Nunavut.

Though there are more Inuktitut speakers in Nunavut, the language in the territory is not as strong as it is in Nunavik.

Between 1996 and 2001, Nunavut’s population grew by 8.1 per cent (when adjusting for the change in boundaries created by the creation of the territory in 1999). But the number of Nunavummiut who reported Inuktitut as their mother tongue only increased by 5.3 per cent — nearly 3 per cent less than the population growth.

Yelle could only guess at the reasons for Nunavik’s increase.

“Usually, it’s because parents are transmitting mother tongue to their children at home. Or it could be because of school programs. It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact reason,” he said.

However, Minnie Amidlak, the co-ordinator for Avataq’s Inuktitut language program, believes Nunavimmiut may be making a concerted effort to pass their language to their children after watching the experiences of other Inuit across the North.

“I do believe that people are really starting to wake up to the experiences of other Inuit such as those in Alaska and Labrador who no longer speak their own language — they only speak English,” she said. “I think we can see if our language is not cared for our traditions and our Inuit way of life would be crippled.”

But Yelle suggested Inuktitut’s growth in Nunavik could also be partly attributed to the region’s isolation.

“Those nations that are close to big cities, they are losing their languages,” Yelle said. “In Quebec, the languages that are high are Cree, Inuktitut and Montagnais. These are all nations that are not close to Montreal or Quebec City.”

According to the census, Cree was the dominant aboriginal language in Quebec in 2001, followed closely by Inuktitut, and Montagnais, then more distantly by Aptikamekw and Algonguin.

Cree was also the most widely spoken aboriginal language in Canada with more than 80,000 people reporting Cree as their mother tongue.

The number of Quebecers who declared Cree as their mother tongue has grown by 10 per cent.

Though the census gave a relatively positive forecast for Inuktitut’s survival in Nunavik, the language remains endangered.

According to language experts, any language must have at least 100,000 fluent speakers to withstand extinction in the face of exposure to other dominant languages such as English or French.

Though the number of Inuktitut speakers is on the rise in Nunavik, only 8,435 Nunavimmiut declared Inuktitut as their mother tongue.

At the turn of the century there were close to 7,000 languages used around the world. More than 100 years later, there are approximately 2,000.

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