Elder wants her grandchildren’s grandchildren to speak Inuktitut, she says at language conference

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“We all have a role.”

These are the words of elder Alicie Joamie, spoken in Inuktitut at the opening panel of the 2019 Inuugatta Inuktuuqta Conference.

Alicie Joamie makes the point that Inuktut can thrive if everyone is involved – in homes, in schools, in government – at the 2019 Inuugatta Inuktuuqta Conference held in Iqaluit March 25 to 29.
photo courtesy of Michel Albert

Joamie explained how when Inuit moved away from old lives to new lives, it was challenging to language and culture.

“Our language is ours, something we relish,” she said, adding the language can be strong if “we tell our stories in our homes, as we eat together and sew together.”

Through-out the conference, held March 25 to 29 in the capital, those passionate and dedicated to Inuktut – both Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun – often echoed Joamie’s words.

Whether in PowerPoint presentations, with diagrams showing the interlocking nature of the efforts needed to ensure thriving Inuit languages, or by emphasizing cultural programming isn’t simply about making something, but also about using the language while making.

“Our mother tongue can remain strong,” said Joamie, adding she wants the grandchildren of her grandchildren to speak Inuktitut.

Deputy minister of Culture and Heritage Puujjut Kusugak explains the department’s Uqausivut version 2, which has as its goal a 100 per cent Inuktut-speaking territory and public service by 2040.
photo courtesy of Michel Albert

Deputy minister of Culture and Heritage Puujjut Kusugak, also a member of the first panel, unveiled the department’s Uqausivut version 2 – which has as its goal a 100 per cent Inuktut-speaking territory and public service by 2040. Uqausivut’s vision includes four areas of focus: language of learning, language services, language revitalization and language of work.

 

Numbers show urgency needed on language efforts

The conference celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Inuit Language Protection Act and the Official Languages Act, which came into effect 10 years after Nunavut’s birth.

Federal government statistician Jean-Francois LePage also spoke with the first panel, providing a sneak peak of a comprehensive report, due out this summer, titled Evolution of the language situation in Nunavut, 2001 to 2016.

A slide from the Department of Culture and Heritage PowerPoint demonstrates the first language learned, by community.
photo courtesy Department of Culture and Heritage

The report concludes:

  • Non-transmission of the mother tongue seems to be the biggest factor that negatively affects the vitality of Inuktut in Nunavut.
  • Most of the linguistic indicators revealed considerable regional disparities.
  • There was somewhat of a resurgence of Inuktut between 2011 and 2016, particularly in the public sphere.

Non-transmission refers to passing the language onto children, the most important effort required to ensure the success of reaching the territory’s language goals.

The transmission rates of Inuktut as a mother tongue to Inuit children aged zero to 14 years have been falling, according to the report. In 2001, 78.5 per cent of Inuit children aged zero to four years had Inuktut as their mother tongue, compared to 68.4 per cent in 2016 – a decline of over 10 percentage points.

The most jarring statistics are those which show the state of Inuinnaqtun in the Kitikmeot.

“In the Qikiqtaaluk region excluding Iqaluit, in 2016, over 95 per cent of Inuit children had Inuktut as their mother tongue in each of the age groups, up from 2011,” states the report.

“By contrast, in the Kitikmeot region, the proportion of children with Inuktut as their mother tongue – much lower initially – decreased significantly between 2011 and 2016 in each of the age groups. In the Kitikmeot region in 2016, 16.8 per cent of Inuit children aged zero to four years, 15.8 per cent of children aged five to nine years and 15.0 per cent of children aged 10 to 14 years had Inuktut as their mother tongue,” states the report.

Julia Ogina, who works for the Kitikmeot Inuit Association (KIA), explained how, in 2009 and 2010, the KIA began language planning to revitalize Inuinnaqtun. In 2011, the board passed a language framework.
photo courtesy of Department of Culture and Heritage

Julia Ogina and Sarah Olayok Jancke, two of a couple dozen representatives from the Kitikmeot, spoke of their work on language.

Ogina, who works for the Kitikmeot Inuit Association (KIA), explained how, in 2009 and 2010, the KIA began language planning to revitalize Inuinnaqtun. In 2011, the board passed a language framework.

Both Ogina and Jancke, also a KIA employee, spoke of the importance of a community-based approach, as well as the need to bring the language into the home. The KIA has been doing this by developing its own television station, which began as a pilot project and is now available in each of the five Kitikmeot communities.

Ogina said Kitikmeot school operations are now involved.

“That was a big milestone. We always tried to get the schools involved,” she said.

“The language framework is connecting the home, the school and the community,” said Jancke.

The Kitikmeot Inuit Association’s Sarah Olayok Jancke says the Inuinnaqtun language framework connects the home, the school and the community, and that Inuit must strategize together about language as they did about matters on the land.
photo courtesy Michel Albert

“I’ve always been told Inuit back in the day on the land, they had to strategize, they had to plan. They had to plan for their survival, plan to thrive. I really think that’s what we have to continue to do today – strategize, work together. We’re translating those values Inuit had back then into strengthening who we are today.”

 

Identify the gaps, says Arnaquq

The conference included two visiting guests:  Glenn Jim, of the W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations, a language revitalization coach for the First People’s Cultural Council in British Columbia, and Katarina Edmonds of New Zealand, whose life has been dedicated to the revitalization of the Maori language.

Jim and Edmonds shared their experiences, and planning and education approaches and methodologies.

Jim pointed out the difference between being language aware and fluency in the language.

“If the community is involved, the community will benefit,” he emphasized, adding a language plan is imperative and has three parts:

  • Where are you?
  • Where do you want to go?
  • How to get there? How much will it cost?

Naullaq Arnaquq, similarly, shared her experiences – as young Inuk student in the school system, as an educator, then an employee with a divisional school board and finally with the Department of Education.

She traced the changes and development which have occurred since she was a student through to the present day.

“I think people know what needs to be done, but some things have fallen through the cracks,” said Arnaquq in an interview after her panel presentation, adding English remains dominant in the school system.

“In the past, when Inuktitut was introduced into the school system, it was not strategic – whatever funding became available, whatever ideas people had,” he said.

“When you are working with a system mostly Inuit-culture based – language, history, of course, that should be the main foundation. When we were going to school, it wasn’t, in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s.

“We became ashamed. We weren’t proud of who we were. People were doing their own thing, and it wasn’t well-planned at all.”

Arnaquq suggests the question that should be asked now is: What are the gaps?

“No matter where you are in the world, you need an effective policy for language, teacher training, and how does that tie into what the kids should be learning, and adult education. We need strong curriculum, teacher training, parental involvement, effective legislation, learning resources,” she said.

“If a new territory is coming into being, we need to be aware of all areas. Where do we want to go? People say, your learning in Inuktitut will slow down your learning in English. Which is not true.”

Finally, she says, “Don’t just look at schools. Look at all the partners.”