Paint the town red, you hear what I’m saying?
“It’s Canada’s newest language in Canada’s newest territory”
When anonymous bureaucrats ordered hundreds of gallons of paint for government buildings across Nunavut, little did they know that they would be helping to shape the development of Inuit Sign Language (ISL) around the territory.
A common sign for a building across the territory is to draw a rectangle in the air with the forefingers.
Each dialect has come to specify a government building by adding a sign indicating the particular colour of the government building in their community.
This use of a common sign is exactly the type of discovery that organizers of Nunavut’s deaf focus group were looking to uncover.
The group, organized by the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, brought deaf people from communities around Nunavut, along with their families and friends as interpreters, to Iqaluit from July 13 to 15 to share their stories and their signs.
“It’s Canada’s newest language in Canada’s newest territory,” said Jamie MacDougall, the founding president of the Canadian Deafness Research and Training Institute.
MacDougall has an intimate understanding of the importance of securing a language for deaf Inuit and their families, having been raised by two deaf parents and having American Sign Language (ASL) as his first language, although he is hearing.
According to MacDougall, one in 1,000 Inuit is deaf, and a high number are hearing impaired. He says that Inuit communities have always been very supportive and active in learning ISL to communicate, but that its development has been hindered because the language has gone unrecognized and has been suppressed by the government.
But that is not unique to the North. It is only in the last 10 to 15 years that sign language has been popularized as an accepted educational system in the South.
It was then that ASL interpreters also were introduced to the territorial education system and interpreters were brought from the south to teach deaf Inuit students and their families, but success varied between communities.
“I felt very lonely in my family until I started teaching them sign language,” said Louisa Nanooklook through an interpreter. She grew up in Rankin Inlet as the eldest deaf child with two deaf brothers and a hearing impaired sibling in a household that came to rely on finger spelling to communicate.
Nanooklook attended school in Vancouver for 13 years, where she learned ASL, while her brother Phillip went south to school but returned home and learned Inuktitut signing from a deaf elder in the community.
Although she doesn’t know ISL herself, participating in the focus group has made Nanooklook enthusiastic about the language. “I’ve been learning a lot,” she says. “It looks like fun.”
MacDougall says bringing deaf Inuit together is extremely important to strengthen the language. “We expect it will develop and be influenced by ASL,” he said.
Participants sat around a circular table and through interpretation between ASL, ISL, English and Inuktitut, they explained and introduced signs from their communities.
From bent fingers moving across teeth to indicate elders and demonstrations of various signs for boys and girls that produced giggles from the crowd, heads nodded in understanding. Similarities and differences between regional dialects of ISL became apparent.
MacDougall likens the development of ISL in communities to sign language that has always been part of traditional culture, used for hunting or to overcome spoken dialectical differences.
“It’s not terribly difficult to figure out,” said Clayton Ungungai, from Baker Lake, through an interpreter. “You can identify a lot of features that make it understandable.”
Ungungai used sign language that he learned at home until grade six, but was then taught ASL and began working with an interpreter. The first time he saw ISL was in Rankin Inlet when he met Nanooklook’s brother Phillip who taught him some signs.
MacDougall and the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth are hoping that ISL will be recognized and included in the Inuit Language Protection Act and the Education Act.
As part of the education system they think it would improve the lives of deaf people in Nunavut and help them to identify with their culture and communicate their own experience.