Jobs top priority for new languages commissioner

“Being a unilingual Inuit should be an honour”



Nunavut’s new languages commissioner has set his sights on making it easier for Inuit to get jobs – even if they only speak Inuktitut.

Johnny Kusugak outlined his push for increased Inuit employment during an interview with Nunatsiaq News shortly after moving to Iqaluit from his home community of Rankin Inlet.

The 45-year-old former politician said he was tired of hearing that Inuit around the territory miss out on employment opportunities because they don’t speak English.

“Being a unilingual Inuit should be an honour,” said Kusugak, who started as commissioner last week. “In their minds, they think it’s a weakness. They think ‘they’re better than me because they can speak English.’ You never hear Qallunaat saying ‘they’re better than me because they can speak Inuktitut.'”

Kusugak said he’s seen government jobs, such as teaching positions, filled by bilingual Inuit, when he would have preferred seeing someone only do the work in Inuktitut.

This included Kusugak’s own contract as a substitute teacher, when he was giving Inuktitut lessons at the Rankin Inlet high school, last fall.

The Inuit-oriented hirings aren’t just a money issue. Kusugak said the government of Nunavut needs more Inuktitut speakers to teach its public servants, in order to reach the goal of making Inuktitut their working language by 2020.

He hopes that if more unilingual Inuit are hired, elders will become more involved in the community.

This way, he said, elders would interact with youth more often, which he believes is key to preserving Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.

“We have to close that gap,” he said. “If we’re working with the elders, and we’re working with the youth, what better results can you get?”

“We have to make sure Inuktitut has a strong foundation.”

But Kusugak understands that boosting employment for unilingual Inuktitut speakers will require more than talk.

He’ll have to lobby the GN to renew past efforts to deliver a set of language laws, complete with an Inuktitut Protection Act.

For nearly five years, Nunavut’s first languages commissioner, Eva Aariak, fought in vain to have the government map out the legal responsibilities of schools and government offices to support Nunavut’s indigenous languages.

The language laws, also known as an Official Languages Act, have languished at the recommendation stage since a special committee finally finished reviewing them over a year ago.

However, Kusugak suggests he has the determination to convince the government to follow through with the legislation, before his mandate is done in four years.

“If you say I can’t, I’ll show you I can,” Kusugak said. “I’m one of those guys.”

Kusugak is adamant that those laws also cover the rights of Inuit working in the private sector.

Like Aariak before him, Kusugak believes future laws should prohibit any company from firing someone, or transferring them to another job, because the employee has poor English skills. Unilingual Inuit would keep the position, unless the company can prove English is essential to the job.

The laws would look to protect Inuit consumers, too. Kusugak expects that when the government starts drafting language laws, he’ll lobby to create sign laws at the same time.

These laws would force all enterprises to use Inuktitut in their commercial signs, posters and advertisements posted outside their business.

Kusugak hopes to get feedback on his lobby plan while visiting all of Nunavut’s communities over the next four years.

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