Some of the shrinking number of Inuinnaqtun speakers in the Kitikmeot are being recruited to act as mentors to apprentices who want to learn the Inuit language.

The Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq/Kitikmeot Heritage Society is fundraising to support the Mentor-Apprentice program, which generally requires 900 hours of learning for the pupil to become fluent in the language.

The society has set a goal of $17,000 in donations by the end of December to allow two mentor-apprentice pairings to begin the first 150 hours of instruction.

The approach the heritage society is using is adapted from a successful model used in California and British Columbia, said Pamela Gross, the society’s executive director.

Participants in the recent “train-the-trainers” Inuinnaqtun program were, front row, from left, Celine Joss, Layla ‘Chuutsqa’ Rorick, Megan Case and Shaunya Ullulaq. Back row, from left, Lorraine Peterson, Emily Angulalik, Mary Akoakhion, Mary Kudlak, Julia Ogina, Ida Ayalik-McWilliam, Agnes Egotak, Tyler Angulalik. photo courtesy of Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq/Kitikmeot Heritage Society

Although it has been estimated that Inuinnaqtun – spoken by fewer than 600 people – could disappear within two generations if more isn’t done to preserve the language, Gross said a sense of optimism remains.

“It will be building capacity within our community so we have more people who are learning the language and able to teach as well,” said Gross. “It’s all one-on-one speaking, no English or anything else. It’s just Inuinnaqtun 100 per cent. It’s not in the classroom per se, it’s doing activities together and speaking and acting gestures out… and then practising it.”

The instructor who led a recent three-day “training the trainers” workshop in Cambridge Bay came from Vancouver Island. There were only five fluent speakers left who knew her ancestors’ Indigenous language. However, she gained command of it and now is teaching it to others, said Gross.

“Now they’re resurging their language and that’s so powerful and amazing that language can do that when people have the drive,” she said, adding that a delegation from the Kitikmeot travelled to Port Alberni, B.C. in September to witness the mentor-apprentice method in action.

The expectation is to begin the initial two mentor-apprentice pairings in Cambridge Bay in January.

A panel will select the first learners from a list of residents who want to take part.

“It’s going to be hard because we already have people that are interested,” said Gross.

Each pairing will report to senior Inuinnaqtun speakers monthly to show their progress.

Gross noted that there’s plans to expand the mentor-apprentice program into Kugluktuk, Gjoa Haven and the NWT community of Ulukhaktok in the future. Those are the other communities where Inuinnaqtun is still spoken. The language was disrupted by the residential school experience, which removed Inuit children from their homes and deprived them of exposure to Inuinnaqtun.

Public donations for the mentor-apprentice program will supplement a variety of other sources of funding, according to Gross.

The Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq/Kitikmeot Heritage Society also sponsored a video documentary project that Reel Youth delivered in late November. Fourteen youth filmed interviews with land users and elders – some of them speaking Inuinnaqtun – discussing climate change. Five short documentaries will be created and those will be screened in Cambridge Bay next spring.

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Derek Neary

Derek Neary has been reporting on developments in the North for 18 years. When he's not writing for Nunavut News, he's working on Northern News Services' special publications such as Opportunities North,...