Nunavut education at a crossroads: reflections on Bill 25

“For 10 years, the Nunavut government has been indifferent to the goal of a fully bilingual education system”

Children at the Aqsarniit Middle School in Iqaluit get ready to start a vocal performance during Education Week activities in 2012. In this opinion piece, Ian Martin says the Nunavut government has been indifferent to the goal of creating a fully bilingual education system. (File photo)

By Ian Martin

The year 2019 is the United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages. Many governments are passing laws and investing funds to strengthen, revitalize, promote and teach Indigenous languages.

In Canada, the federal government has recognized that Indigenous constitutional rights include language rights. In much of the world, Indigenous languages are being recognized as valuable.

But not in Nunavut. For 10 years, the Nunavut government has been indifferent to the goal of a fully bilingual education system, failing to recognize that a strong, vibrant, bilingual education system is critical for the flourishing of Inuit culture and identity, and the gateway to Inuit employment.

It has turned its back on the main reason for the Nunavut territory: ensuring that the public government reflect Inuit ways of understanding and being.

Three times in the last 10 years, the government has had an opportunity to create bilingual education and implement Inuit language rights, and three times it has declined to do so.

Instead of reinvigorating a Nunavut Teacher Education Program capable of accrediting Inuit to become teachers, the Department of Education has chosen to staff Nunavut schools with high-turnover teachers from southern Canada.

The result: 75 per cent of the teachers don’t speak the Inuit language—certainly not the intention of the founders of Nunavut.

The First denial of Inuit language rights (2008)

In 2008, the government committed itself to a bilingual education system in which Inuit would be taught principally in Inuktut from kindergarten through Grade 12 by July 2019. This was an important goal: to produce fluently bilingual graduates to staff the public service, for which a cohort of bilingual Inuit educators are needed.

The department was aware of the need to train bilingual Inuit teachers to teach in Inuktut. In 2005, it commissioned the 2006-2016 Qalattuq Strategy, a solid plan to invest in Inuit educators.

And in 2006, there were discussions to roll out kindergarten to Grade 12 bilingual education, starting with a commitment to kindergarten to Grade 3 in 2009, Grade 4 in 2010, and ending up with the system in place by September 2018.

It is wrong to say, as Jim Bell has recently claimed, that the 2008 Education Act, with its July 2019 goal was “dead on arrival.” It wasn’t dead, it was politically killed.

The method of killing was the removal from the bill of the implementation schedule — this meant that there was no annual report on progress, and no follow-up on the Qalattuq Strategy, or requirements for NTEP to set up a plan to train Inuit teachers to teach in Inuktut.

All this set the department on a path toward non-compliance with its own legislation, which continues today.

The Second denial of Inuit language rights (2017)

In 2017, the government introduced Bill 37, postponing for 10 years the roll-out of bilingual education from Grade 4 to Grade 9 until 2029.

They offered no action plan to meet this goal, and no commitment to Inuktut in Grade 10 to Grade 12, despite the fact that future NTEP candidates would need to be high school graduates.

There was no plan to train Inuit educators to use Inuktut as a language of instruction throughout the grades, reflecting a deeply-held colonial prejudice alive and well throughout the department: that Inuktut is incapable of expressing ideas at the level of high school complexity. This prejudice has no place in today’s Nunavut.

The effect of all this is that Inuit high school students continue to receive exclusively English, not Inuktut, instruction in high school, with one result being that future teachers are not achieving the Inuktut proficiency needed to use Inuktut as a language of instruction at upper levels.

Bill 37 was met with opposition from all who support bilingual education, from Inuit parents and students, district education authorities, expert educators, and ultimately Nunavut’s legislators.
The defeat of Bill 37 — and I hope, the defeat of its avatar Bill 25 — served to raise awareness of the importance of Inuktut, and contained a message to the government to put in place a robust plan to recruit more Inuit into teaching and support them to teach in Inuktut and English at all grade levels and in all subjects.

The new administration chose instead to introduce Bill 25, which is very similar to Bill 37. But where Bill 25 is far worse than Bill 37 is that it effectively reduces Inuktut instruction to a language arts course or program.

For the introduction of Inuktut language arts courses in Grade 4 to Grade 12, the 2019 timetable would extend to 2039. And this is only for Inuktut language arts courses.

Inuktut language-of-instruction timelines for all other courses are left to be set in the future, maybe. Of course, by 2039, many fluent Inuktut speakers will have passed on. It is killing a language by neglect.

The third denial of Inuit language rights (2019)

Like its predecessors, Bill 25 comes with no plan even to reach the distant goal of 2039, no schedule for bilingual education upward through the grades, no commitment to 85 per cent Inuit employment in the education system, and no staffing plan other than a continuing infusion of 75 per cent of the territory’s teachers from the south.

If current Inuit teacher retirement trends continue, the system will be completely staffed by English-speaking teachers by 2026.

Lack of funding is not the problem – in the 2017-18 fiscal year, the department underspent its budget by some $39 million or 12.5 per cent, which could have been directed toward Inuit teacher training.

New possibilities: the NAC-Memorial partnership

Nunavut Arctic College recently signed an agreement with Memorial University to offer joint credential degree programs, including NTEP. It is to be hoped that Memorial’s Indigenous education expertise will ensure NTEP can deliver, and that the much-needed transformation of that institution’s culture can finally begin.

It is, of course, sad that 2019, the UN Year of Indigenous Languages, is not the year in which the first class of bilingual students proudly graduated, as the 2008 bill intended.

But 2019 could be the year in which the GN, with the assistance of a major southern university committed to decolonizing education, begins a process of decolonizing the education system and NTEP.

Defeating Bill 25, from this perspective, is a necessity. But the important question isn’t about legislation, it’s about embracing change toward one of the main reasons for Nunavut: the flourishing of the Inuktut language and Inuit culture.

If such a transformation were to begin in 2019, it would be the most worthy way imaginable to celebrate the Year of Indigenous Languages, not only in Nunavut, but in all of Canada.

Ian Martin is an associate professor of English at Toronto’s Glendon College with a long involvement in Nunavut language issues, having worked as a consultant for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Kitikmeot Inuit Association and the Government of Nunavut.

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(30) Comments:

  1. Posted by Reality on

    How is it a “denial of inuit language rights”, when enough teachers to provide the instruction just aren’t there? Despite having several decades to prepare, there are not enough motivated, reliable inuktitut-speaking teachers. There’s no magical answer to this. If Inuit cannot provide enough teachers, you can’t have inuktitut instruction. If inuit really wanted inuktitut instruction, people would be passionate enough to do the jobs. Are you sure “decolonization” is what people want? If so, it’s time for them to act, because the talking has already been done over and over and over.

    • Posted by Subterranean Homesick Alien on

      You must understand that by writing such an incendiary and transgressive piece the good professor has accomplished a few important things. First, he has signaled his fidelity to his chosen tribe, and is mining tremendous (moral) currency among them by doing so. A true warrior fighting the nefarious evils of the GN; a subversive force that, while comprised of a large percentage of Inuit, somehow has no concern for its mother tongue.
      Of course, in this pursuit nuance and complexity are needless burdens as his audience has little use or concern for them.
      Not to absolve the GN of its incapacity and incompetence, but the story here can’t simply be reduced to some cartoonish version of good versus evil.

  2. Posted by Flipping a switch on

    If you’re living in the NTI echo chamber, you must really think the GN is sinister and evil, and that white haired bureaucrats pat each other on the back every weekend, congratulating each other for quashing the dream of Inuktitut being fully implemented in schools and the workplace.

    The truth is way murkier. The GN’s subpar bureaucracy is definitely one of the problems, but there are so many other factors at play. You can’t recruit people to become Inuktitut teachers if they don’t want to be teachers. You also have a limited pool of people you can recruit. And those people will look at all their career options and may say “I don’t want to have to worry about my students every night, I want a desk job and leave my problems at work”.

    There’s no shortage of teachers down south because it’s an easy way to get a job in any corner of the country. Every town needs teachers and the pay is decent. That’s not the case in Nunavut, where any desk job pays about the same, or even more if you speak Inuktitut fluently.

    And you’re not going to make much of a dent in terms of making it a workplace language if you don’t standardize it to some degree. The bickering and nitpicking between gatekeepers of regional dialects will kill Inuktitut faster than an army of incompetent bureaucrats.

  3. Posted by Bbff on

    Memorial university will not be the saviour of the Inuktitut language. Wake up look to Nfld. Not a leader in any way! Perhaps the most colonial province!

    • Posted by No comparison on

      Memorial university is trying to help, but its helplessness that being dealt with. No one can help people that dont help themselves. I agree fully with the first comment. Where are the Inuit teachers? Inuit today are not the inuit of the 1960s even. Inuit today are heart fully a differnt people that are materialistic. They dont want the language of the real inuit that have died out. They want money, and all things from coming off the boats and the jet. This language fuss is nothing more than a pretentious attempt to be something, but fake. You listened to young people, they cant speak any language properly, because of the mainstream influence. Like it or not , what comes north, is asked for by ordering in English. Down south will not send material up north, if they dont get the order in English. I love to be able to say Inuktitut is alive, but it really died with the real inuit.

  4. Posted by Bestkimo on

    Here is a 4-step plan for NTI/ITK, the GN, Pirurvik, and Nunavummiut to get Inuktitut back on track.

    1. Standardize the language. Immediately. Understand that people are going to whine – so what. It has to be done, and the longer we wait the more our language declines.

    2. Develop a Digital App to learn Inuktitut. Duolingo. Rosetta Stone. Whatever – it doesn’t matter which platform. All that matters is it works. Just do it.

    3. Give the app to schools and Inuit across Canada for free. Make non-Inuit who want to use it pay for it.

    4. GN – integrate it into the classroom ASAP. Make it mandatory to complete for all students in school.

    Of course I wildly oversimplify the process, but really it’s not that difficult. We have plenty of money. What we lack is the political will to implement this plan. Were we to start today, it could feasibly be completed within 2.5 years.

    It is a stopgap, sure, but it’s better than nothing. Digital media offers us a solution to capacity issues we have been struggling with. Digital media is a force multiplier, and we are foolish not to be making better use of it.

    • Posted by Curious George on

      “3. Give the app to schools and Inuit across Canada for free. Make non-Inuit who want to use it pay for it.”
      This doesn’t even make sense.
      Curious at your insistence than non-Inuit pay though. What’s the point? The more friction you create, the less distance you will move.

      • Posted by Laugh Out Loud on

        Get with the program, George! This is Nunavut, whitey pays for everything!

  5. Posted by Pinocchio & little red riding hood band wagon Education on

    Education needs to be focus on improving programs delivered in classes such as;
    – Inuktitut (writing & speaking) – is this delivered?
    – English (grammar & writing) – is this delivered with qualified TEACHER’s?
    – Mathematics – is this delivered with qualified TEACHER’s?
    – Social Studies – is this delivered with qualified TEACHER’s?
    – Bio-logy or Chemistry – is this delivered with qualified TEACHER’s?
    Students that complete Gr. 12 tend to enroll back in NAC (Nunavut Arctic College) upgrading in classes; as Gr. 12 level in Nunavut are ranged Gr. 7, 8 or 9 level in southern Education level compared to rural School’s in Nunavut that are below average. This is critical state, which creates mystical illusion and friction at different level’s i.e. when students enroll in post-secondary it is find as little too academic for number of Nunavut students to take on college or university programs. This needs to be address and approach this problem or solution where weaknesses and challenges are originated to be approach and improved with Academic Education in rural Nunavut schools! Suggestions!?!

  6. Posted by Teacher One on

    Ian, will you be teaching in Inuktitut in Nunavut in January, 2020? If not, why not?
    All the rest of you who want Inuktitut instruction in Nunavut, are you now a teacher in Nunavut? If not, have you applied to the Department of Education to teach in Nunavut in Inuktitut in January, 2020?
    You know the old saying, “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
    All I’ve ever heard is “I want someone else to teach in Inuktitut.”
    Standardization is just a distraction. English is not standardized. France has its own Language Police, but even in France, French is not really standardized.
    Don’t look to Newfoundland for much help. They have more local dialects of English and French than Nunavut has dialects of Inuktitut.

  7. Posted by Shawarma Lover on

    When I get stressed out, I head down to yummy shawarma to grab myself a bite. No one is complaining that they’re not speaking in Inuktitut. Try their delicious potatoes!

    • Posted by Just Wannabe #WOKE on

      This sounds kinda good, but immediately I’m getting a red flag about cultural appropriation. Aren’t you? How dare you! Without gathering anymore evidence than you have graciously provided (thank you by the way) I must, regretfully, launch a full on protest over this radical injustice!
      What’s the address again?
      I’ll be back, just need to login to twitter…

  8. Posted by Qujannamik Qallunaaq on

    Yes, Dept. Of Education is part of the problem. It has no leadership vision on the matter.
    Israel has a very old language, which had almost become obsolete. Hebrew is now working effectivly because politicians and the people wanted their language to be used in the nation.
    Many people want to keep saying Inuktitut is a dying language. Negative thinkers. Inuktitut has gained hundred of words in every field. Inuktitut is alive and making new words.

    • Posted by The Old Trapper on

      Engliah adds between 500 to 1,000 words each year. It’s likely that Inuktitut isn’t even keeping up with the new English words being created. Never mind all the English words for specific items that have no Inuktitut equivalent, then all the concepts, etc.
      At a certain point if you don’t have a critical mass it’s pretty much hopeless trying to make your language the primary language used in business and government. Quebec has enough problems with French primacy. It works for them but at a huge cost.
      Nunavut has little to no chance to make Inuktitut the language of government and business. Better to direct efforts to teach it to everyone in daycare, JK, kindergarten and possibly grades 1-2 so the younger generation develops early proficiency. Kids in these grades should be able to be taught in both Inuktitut and English but at a certain point it makes sense to change to a predominantly English language program.
      How many engineering manuals, or medical textbooks, or science and math textbooks, etc are in Inuktitut?

      • Posted by Consistency on

        No text books are in inuktut and they wont be if we do not get our children to learn inuktut proficient enough for the text books to be translated.

        • Posted by David on

          Which raises another issue…… where are the textbooks coming from?

          I doubt there will be many publishers willing to prints such a small number unless the prices was $300-400 each.

          • Posted by MONICA A CONNOLLY on

            Put the texts online as they are developed, in a format that can be printed or used on the computer.

      • Posted by MONICA A CONNOLLY on

        Have you ever read lists of the newly recognized English words? One of the main sources of English vocabulary is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) which adds new words quarterly. Go investigate their site: . There is a list of 2019 entries. Very few would have any relationship to Inuktitut education (or any education, for that matter). There are proper names, which would only change spelling (e.g. Assiniboine); there are slang words from different areas (I’ve known for decades that bampot is Glaswegian for idiot); there are words used in very slightly different ways than previously; there are newly coined technical words (which many languages just borrow from the coining language, as the world did with neutron in 1932). The only way new English words affect Inuktitut education is the same as they affect French or Japanese education: the extremely rare situation where a new English word is widely used AND names a previously unknown item, for example, a new chemical compound.
        Otherwise this is just a red herring.

  9. Posted by Colin on

    Inuit leaders lost the language decades ago for these main reasons, as other commentators have noted:

    1. There wouldn’t be a problem if GN, Baffinland and Agnico Eagle had an all-Inuit workforce. Inuit governance has totally failed to educate and train managers and professionals in Nunangat, thereby creating the problems of ongoing suicide and domestic violence crises.

    2. There’s no standard Inuktitut. German and Italian speakers retain their dialects while having a standard language. Go to Jamaica and you’ll find that every Jamaican, managers and bed-makers alike, all speak the local patois as well as English.

    3. There’s no standard writing system.

    4. There’s no pocket dictionary, which must, of courdse, be in English script both ways.

    Canadian Chinese, Jewish and Ukrainian communities all participate in the school system in English, as is necessary… They have their own cultural and language classes outside regular school time, usually on Saturday mornings.

    • Posted by Yes it can on

      Fluency in Inuktitut doesn’t prohibit university or college entrance. A solid foundation in Inuktitut in early years can set the course for acquiring English skills later in life

      • Posted by $175 million dollars on

        The Canadian Government provides more than $175 million a year for the Chinese, the Italians and the Mexicans or any other nationality learn English on Saturday mornings

  10. Posted by Tuktuwabado on

    Moved to Iqaluit from Rankin and can barely understand the inuktitut here. inuks tell me i’m saying things wrong. nothing wrong when i speak it in rankin. don’t want my kids wasting time with inuktitut, better they learn english and get good jobs than me working outside when its really cold. stop wasting our kids school time with long language takes 2 to 5 times longer to say something inuktitut than english. writing inuktitut is even more worse . teach them english only so they are really good and can finish school and get good jobs.

    • Posted by OKUK ( CAMBRIDGE BAY ) on

      I could not agree with you more ! !
      I have heard that over 40 million dollars a year is spent on
      Inuktitut. That money should be spent on housing & food
      for the people of Nunavut.
      Inuktitut language programs & instructors have failed their
      students for many years, with their bad attitudes & lack of

      • Posted by Three hundred million on

        The Department of Education spends more than $300 million a year – which likely means by your calculation, $260 million is spent on English – if we don’t value majority of the students who are Inuit, then it’s any wonder only 245 students graduate per year and hundreds more feel discouraged and undervalued, quit and enter the $15 million a year social assistance trap

  11. Posted by Northern Guy on

    Fluency in Inuktut will not get Inuit into university programs like engineering, medicine, nursing, accounting or business management, english will do that. If Nunavut wants its children to attend post-secondary programs that will displace big bad qalunaat outsiders them they HAVE to learn and become competent in english. And please spare me the pipe dream of an Inuktut-based university as we are literally centuries away from that reality.

  12. Posted by Easy to romanticize how to make it happen on

    Prof Ian Martin , has for decades romanticized how easy it should be to make education in Nunavut bilingual; yet he has never taught here, not spent any amount of time in the community…he does not understand thae difficulties outlined above, how to get fluent Inuktitut speakers to want to become teachers; of course- until the language is fully standardized- how can you establish a pool of ‘fluent speakers’- what is the standard?
    NTI has the money not the political will) to start to fix this- put some of your Millions or is it billions? in surplus towards saving the language- it is not the GN’s full responsibility…..standardize the language, standardize the language…then update the resources…at least Quassa had the guts to suggest standardizing Inuktitut….

  13. Posted by Naysayers on

    The vast majority of the comments here make it as if teaching and learning Inuktitut is worthless, frutile and prohibitive. It’s as if Inuit shouldn’t aspire to keeping the language alive, to be submissive to the dominant minority and forget about our inherent right to be who we are. We’re made to sound selfish, narrow-minded or backwards to value our language before it vanishes. Rene Levesque didn’t waver when he advocated for Bill 101 to instill French in every part of a Quebecois life, even when 94,000 Anglophones left Quebec in because of the Bill. Thirty-five years later, nobody remembers Rene Levesque’s advocacy, yet French is now accepted as the norm in media, music, TV, radio, daycares, schools, workplaces, text, signs, notices or posters. Speaking one’s own language doesn’t diminish intelligence or prohibits higher education. The Japanese designed and built computers and nuclear reactors in their own language. Once the political aspiration is set, all the mechanisms to infuse language can be propelled; from drafting legislation, regulations and implementation plans, to assisting NTEP students in practicum and teacher certification, to building up recruitment and retention incentives for Inuit teachers, to developing curriculum standards and competency assessments, to developing minimum requirements for achieving functional grade levels that would assist teachers measure students progress. It’s not fair to argue that Inuktitut should be taught at home. Inuit are already inundated with English in every part of their life; from TV to radio to Facebook to daycares to books and magazines. Without that political drive, measures to integrate a foreign education system becomes dysfunctional in either language. Teach Inuktitut first to enable students to excel in English.

    • Posted by Nay on

      Many, inuit, non inuit too, would love to see Inuktitut grow into a main language for the north. But to compare it to french, englush, japanese is not possible. The french in quebec, the English world wide, the japanese are stand alone, didnt need help from other languages to survive. They have their own economic systems. They don’t depend on anyone to survive. Yes, they share world resources, but unlike inuit they produced their own schools and universities. They built their own houses. Produce their own vehicles. They have very educated citizens. Inuit are too dependent. Im sadly stating this and feel bad for it, but its true.

    • Posted by To Naysayers comment on

      If you’re not part of the solution, you are the problem. To naysayers: look at what you wrote. Its a familiar tune. Always blaming someone else. Always depending on someone else. English , french and other languages that are used today didnt get permission to be that way. These languages are because the people that speak and use them are independently using them. If you want Inuktitut to survive, dont depend on anyone , but inuit. Make it that way. Ensure that education is your priority. But i can tell you know that if you’re waiting for someone else to do it for you, then they’ll use their own language to do it. Stop whining and get education into your children. Its education that makes the difference.

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