Language commissioner proposes Inuktitut protection bill

New law would call for sweeping changes to make Inuit language more prominent



Nunavut’s language commissioner is calling for a new Inuktitut language law that would require all business and road signs, utility bills and medicine prescriptions to be written in Inuktitut in addition to any other languages.

The law would also guarantee Inuit students the right to an Inuktitut education and prohibit employers from firing Inuktitut-speaking people solely because they can’t speak languages other than Inuktitut.

The proposal, by Eva Aariak, Nunavut’s language commissioner, has far-reaching implications for all Nunavummiut, including school children, elders, business people and government employees.

Aariak made the recommendation on Jan. 18 to a Legislative Assembly committee reviewing the Official Languages Act, a piece of legislation governing language use. The committee has been gathering opinions on how to make the act, which was in place when Nunavut was still part of the Northwest Territories, more suitable to the new territory.

Instead of just revamping the old law, Aariak urged the committee to also draft a second bill, which would become Nunavut’s first real Inuktitut language law.

She said while the Official Languages Act recognizes Inuktitut as an official language, it doesn’t contain any provisions to protect or promote it within Nunavut.

“Inuktitut is in need of special measures that will protect and strengthen its status and use in Nunavut,” Aariak told the group, made up of MLAs who sit on the language committee and representatives from the Nunavut Social Development Council, Qikiqtani Inuit Association and the Nunavut Francophone Association.

During the all-day meeting, Aariak gave the committee a glimpse of what the new law, referred to as the “Inuktitut Protection Act,” might look like.

Inuktitut in the private sector

The Official Languages Act is limited in scope, Aariak said, because it covers the use of language only in the Legislative Assembly, court system and government.

In order for Inuktitut to have a greater presence, private businesses must get on board, she said.

The proposed law would require all signs, posters and commercial advertising posted on the outside of businesses to be in Inuktitut. Other languages are permitted to be on signs, as long as Inuktitut is as prominent.

“In order for a language to survive and have an impact on the public, it has to be visible in your environment. One way of addressing that is through business signs and public signs,” Aariak said.

Inuktitut would also be required on all Nunavut road signs. Those posted in Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk, Bathurst Inlet and Umingmaktuq must appear in Inuinnaqtun, a dialect of Inuktitut used in those Kitikmeot communities.

Businesses and public utilities, such as electric and phone companies, would have to include Inuktitut on bills and notices sent to customers.

The language commissioner is also requesting that labels on prescription medicine bottles appear in Inuktitut.

Aariak said this is a matter of public safety, especially for elders who may speak and read very little English. “We often hear elders say that when they are prescribed medication, they are given their instructions written in English only,” she said.

The Inuktitut Protection Act would require all pharmacies licensed in Nunavut to provide information regarding the dosage and correct use of prescription drugs in Inuktitut — both in person and in writing.

Special rights

The proposed law, based on the premise that Inuit should be encouraged to use their language as much as possible, contains several special rights for Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun speakers.

In particular, it recommends that all Nunavummiut should have the right to speak Inuktitut on the job. Under the new law, unilingual Inuit could not be laid off, fired or transferred from a job simply because they don’t speak English — unless the employer demonstrates that knowledge of English is integral to carrying out the job.

Aariak pointed out that for years many Inuit looking for work had very little luck landing a job if they couldn’t speak English. She wants to see a law that strictly prohibits that discrimination.

The proposal would also guarantee an Inuktitut education for all Inuit in Nunavut. While the school system is committed to this in practice, the Inuktitut protection law would embed it in law.

In Canada, under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, French and English speakers are guaranteed the right to be educated in their mother tongue. “Currently, Inuktitut speakers enjoy no such right, even within Nunavut,” Aariak said.

Changes to Nunavut’s Official Languages Act act must go before the federal Parliament for approval.

An additional Inuktitut protection act, however, can be passed by the Nunavut legislature on its own.

The Legislative Assembly’s language committee will review Aariak’s proposal and consult with Nunavut residents over the next four months.

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