EDITORIAL: Feds lack courage to protect Inuktut

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Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami says Inuktut is Canada’s most resilient Indigenous language. Perhaps ITK shouldn’t be broadcasting this fact.

The federal government seems to have used Inuktut’s resilience to overlook the language in its proposed Indigenous languages bill. Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s announcement of the bill earlier this month left Inuit on the short end of the deal. ITK made its disapproval known by skipping the announcement.

Last summer, ITK expected the bill to contain sections specific to the three national Indigenous groups representing Inuit, First Nations and Metis in Canada. ITK had drafted its own wording for the section, and was working with the feds to tweak the wording in the common elements of the bill.

That Inuit-specific section is not to be found, ITK stated in a release the day of the announcement.

“The Government of Canada engaged Inuit in bad faith throughout this legislative initiative,” according to president Natan Obed.

ITK notes that Inuktut is spoken by 84 per cent of Inuit in the 51 communities across Inuit Nunangat, an expanse of land that covers more than one-third of Canada. It’s the second-most prevalent Indigenous language in Canada, behind only Cree. Despite this, the federal government is making it clear it doesn’t understand the transformative role this bill could play in the lives of so many Inuit.

The bill is a chance to introduce the right to federal services in Inuktut in Inuit communities, a right enjoyed by English and French across Canada.

In fact, French gets far more money per capita in Nunavut, and we bet more federal workers in Nunavut speak French than Inuktut. Francophones even have their own school in Iqaluit, providing first-language education to Grade 8 (and they probably have the capacity to go to Grade 12), while Inuit have no guarantee of receiving Inuktut-language education past Grade 3. The Government of Nunavut’s controversial proposed Education Act changes indicated Inuit can’t expect Inuktut-language education for Grades 4 to 9 until at least 2029, and who knows when for Grades 10 to 12.

There will be a tipping point when Inuktut no longer has the power to be the dominant language in Nunavut. This moment may have already passed.

If there is still time, governments need to show the leadership required to keep Inuktut alive. Inuktut should be the default language for all government activities, for example. And Inuit in Inuit Nunangat should be able to expect government services in Inuktut, or at least have immediate access to translation services.

The Hawaiians and Haida have learned that with language, you either use it or lose it.

The feds have the chance to fund the changes required to save Indigenous languages, but such an effort requires courage Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may not have at the moment. There is still some time to add an Inuit-specific section, Rodriguez says. But it seems an election year is not the right time for such risky business for such a vulnerable government.

Unfortunately, it’s another sign that the Trudeau government’s ‘special relationship’ with Indigenous people is a lot less special than originally advertised.