Naming streets isn’t the Inuit way, residents say

Iqalungmiut sign petition opposing Iqaluit’s four-year-old street sign project



Some longtime Iqaluit residents are criticizing city council’s street-naming project, saying the proposed Inuktitut names are insulting, community members haven’t had enough input and the project is another example of non-Inuit taking over Iqaluit.

Lena Ellsworth, an Iqaluit resident who grew up in the community, is spearheading a petition that’s asking city council to rethink the names it’s considering putting on Iqaluit’s roads.

Ellsworth said council’s view is that using Inuktitut words for street names is respectful of the Inuit culture. But she said it’s insulting because the words, including the Inuktitut names for parka, dog and fish spear, are too simplistic.

“Like they’re saying it’s traditional because they’re naming streets amauti and okalik. You know, you don’t hear of streets down South being called dog, shovel or cow.”

“They were trying to call it traditional, but it’s a very qallunaat way of twisting it into traditional,” Ellsworth said in an interview. “It’s very simplistic, almost disrespectful, when you think of it.”

Ellsworth’s comments echo those of Nunavut’s language commissioner, Eva Aariak, who, at a public meeting last month, told council she suspected simple words such as amauti and kamik were chosen for the sake of non-Inuit who might have trouble pronouncing Inuktitut words.

Ellsworth, along with longtime residents Annie Quirke and Saila Kipanik, circulated a petition around the city to gauge other Iqalungmiut’s opinions of the proposed street names.

The petition asked residents if Iqaluit’s roads should be named after people, if more elders should have been consulted on possible names for streets and if the city should hold another public meeting to better inform residents about the project.

Only a handful of Iqalungmiut who signed the petition actually like the city’s idea of naming roads after late community leaders.

“One of the things we asked was ‘Should we name the streets after people?’ and all the older people we talked to said that’s not traditional and it’s a very qallunaat thing by putting your name on something,” Ellsworth explained.

It’s simply not the Inuit way of doing things, says Annie Quirke.

“We don’t normally name a street or a building or a place after people,” she said. Inuit do, however, name certain areas in town by the surrounding landscape. For example, longtime Inuit have always called Federal Road “Qaqqaliariaq”, which roughly translates into “the route that leads to the hills.”

“For the street names we would use landscapes,” Quirke said.

Public left out

In addition to taking issue with the proposed names, Iqaluit residents also feel left out of the whole street-naming project.

Both Ellsworth and Quirke said the lack of community input sparked the idea for the petition in the first place. “I guess we felt it went a bit too far without asking the local people — the people who have been here since the community started,” Ellsworth said.

Their petition reveals that other Iqalungmiut also believe there wasn’t enough community input.

Of the 65 people who signed the petition, 56 residents said the council needs to consult elders and the community. In addition, 63 residents want the council to hold another public meeting.

Throughout the past several years, the Iqaluit council has hosted public meetings to inform residents of the street-naming project and to gather possible road names. Almost all of the 75 proposed street names came from suggestions from the public.

But Ellsworth and Quirke argue that few people knew about those meetings and even fewer attended them. Only five residents went to the last public meeting, held on April 22.

Ellsworth blames the poor attendance on poor advertising by the city. “Nobody heard about it until after the fact,” she said. “They just want to plow right through and get it over with.”

But Iqaluit Mayor John Matthews disputes her claim. He said council set up information booths at last year’s Nunavut Trade Show and at NorthMart to let people know about the street-naming project. “We went to where the people were,” he said.

Not the Inuit way

But the root of some residents’ wariness about the street names is that it represents another project that is aimed at newcomers from the South — not longtime Inuit residents.

“For a few years now, the real local people feel like their town has been taken away. This is another thing that is being taken out of their hands,” Ellsworth said.

Because Inuit already have names for many of the areas throughout Iqaluit, the new street names will mean very little to them, she said. In fact, she doesn’t see how Inuit will even benefit from having the city’s roads named. She said she suspects the project is geared at newcomers to Iqaluit who don’t know the city very well.

The street-naming project, started in 1998, is designed to help the city’s emergency services department easily find their way around town. Ellsworth said if the city wants to limit any confusion for emergency services, it should just fix up the house numbers, rather than introducing street names.

The group handed their petition over to city council on May 13.

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