Revised Act would give Inuktitut prominence in Nunavut

Language commissioner submits tough talk on Languages Act



Nunavut’s language commissioner has a vision for a better, bolder Official Languages Act, the law that sets out language rights for the territory.

Eva Aariak wants the Act revamped so that Inuktitut, the language spoken by a majority of Nunavut residents, has the same status that English and French enjoy in the territory.

She also wants the language law to have a bigger scope within Nunavut.

Aariak presented her ideas for an improved language law to a special Legislative Committee reviewing the Official Languages Act. The committee, established in February 2001 and made up of five MLAS, has been asked to examine how well the Act’s objectives are being carried out.

The committee is also gathering suggestions on how to make the Act, which was drafted when Nunavut was still part of the Northwest Territories, more relevant to the territory.

On Jan. 18 the language commissioner presented the committee with her own list of recommendations.

First and foremost, Aariak is proposing the Act be updated to include only the languages that are predominantly used in Nunavut: Inuktitut, English and French.

Because the Act was drafted when Nunavut was part of the NWT, it identifies Chipewayan, Cree, Dogrib, Gwich’in and Slavey as official languages. But since the number of Dene and Cree speakers in Nunavut is so small, Aariak suggests these languages be dropped from the legislation.

The Act would also set out a definition of Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. Aariak proposes to clear up the confusion about whether Inuinnaqtun is a dialect of Inuktitut or its a language of its own, by classifying it as a dialect.

Aariak is determined to give Inuktitut a much stronger presence in the law, bringing it up to the level of English and French. The existing Act requires court decisions, bylaws, regulations and legislation to be written only in English and French.

Aariak argued it’s essential to have such documents issued in Inuktitut as well. She is recommending the section be changed to require courts to issue decisions in Inuktitut when dealing with an matter of public importance, or when part of the court proceedings takes place in Inuktitut.

Broader scope

The language commissioner wants Inuktitut, and all its dialects including Inuinnaqtun, to be more visible in Nunavut communities.

That’s why she is recommending the scope of the language law be broadened to include language use in municipalities. The law currently governs language in the legislative assembly, court system and government.

“It’s been brought to me that there’s no language policy at the municipality level and that’s a concern,” Aariak said. “If we don’t include the municipalities, then some of the information coming out will undoubtedly be in English only.”

She suggests the law read: “The public has the right to communicate with and receive services from cities, towns and hamlets in Inuktitut”.

Aariak is asking that municipalities be required to serve the public in English and French as well. However, the French requirement will be applied only to Iqaluit, which has a significant French community, estimated at about 10 per cent of the population.

Taking responsibility

The language commissioner wants to fix what she considers a major flaw in the Officials Languages Act. The problem, she said, is that there is no one in the Nunavut government responsible for ensuring the objectives in the language act are carried out.

Other governments that have language polices, including the Canadian and Quebec governments, appoint ministers to see their policies are implemented.

“We should take the same stand in Nunavut and identify a department that will be responsible for its implementation,” Aariak urged the committee.

The committee will use Aariak’s comments to help with its review of the Official Languages Act. The committee expects it will present an interim report to the Legislative Assembly this May and work on drafting changes to the Act during the summer and fall.

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