Nunavut’s language challenges are many

by Admin- August 15, 2017

Last month, under the radar, Nunavut’s Department of Culture and Heritage let a significant date pass with zero fanfare. More than two weeks later, we learned that all businesses and non-governmental organizations must join the government in offering its services in the Inuit language.


It’s a big deal. Why wasn’t a bigger deal made? Perhaps because it’s summer in Nunavut.

Nunavummiut know that English has a lot of power here, perhaps more than Inuktut, despite the fact the territory is 84 per cent Inuit, according to the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics. Outside of Iqaluit, the figure is 92 per cent.

Very many Inuit speak English but the same can’t be said for qallunaat speaking Inuit languages.

The erosion of Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun can only stop if they are used, promoted and more widespread. The government is right to step in to push back against one of the world’s most dominant languages.

It makes sense to conscript businesses into the fight. But halting Inuktut’s erosion will take a lot of effort, money and goodwill.

Businesses run by qallunaat tend to use English names, and their marketing is rarely translated into Inuktut. The government is ready to help with a $1 million fund – up to $5,000 per business – to translate materials and produce signage, etc., to match the prominence of the English ones.

But producing reading material is only one solution that doesn’t line up with the reality that literacy is low here, particularly outside of Iqaluit.

The poor state of Inuktut in government and in education in Nunavut is a huge barrier that needs to be addressed if this effort is to work. Inuit employment in government has been stuck at 50 per cent for ages, and the problem is more pronounced in Nunavut schools, where the next generation is expected to develop Inuit language skills while spending their days being taught by English-speaking non-Inuit teachers using a different writing system.

To save the language, all schools should be requiring all students to learn all subjects in Inuktitut first, and English should be taught as a second language much the same as French is offered at English-speaking schools down south.

Until such ideas are possible to execute, asking businesses to have Inuktut speakers available to answer questions about products and services will run into a capacity issue. It’s difficult for small businesses to recruit Inuktut speakers when the need for their labour in government is in high demand, and the pay is higher. Finding translators is also difficult, especially those who speak Inuinnaqtun, even for small projects.

Technology isn’t much of a help, at this point. Google Translate offers more than 100 languages, almost none spoken by Indigenous people in North America. It does offer Latin, though, which has zero native speakers. There’s something wrong with that.

Surveying the landscape, it’s no surprise the languages commissioner is saying fines won’t come right away for businesses that don’t comply.

It’s smart business to speak the language of the client. Unfortunately for us all, the territory’s biggest employer – the government – has a much bigger language problem, and it’s going to take far more money and far more time to solve.