Nunavut’s public government and Inuit at odds over education and language
by Michele LeTourneau
Northern News Services
Education minister Paul Quassa says it’s vital Bill 37 to amend the Education Act and the Inuit Language Protect Act pass in some form.
“If the dates for Inuktitut and English or French bilingual education stays as is in the Education Act, the Government of Nunavut risks being sued, by Nunavut Tunngavik for example,” he said.
But the Standing Committee on Legislation saw things differently when it halted the progress of the bill May 5.
“When the house reconvenes for its spring sitting, the standing committee will formally recommend that Bill 37 … not proceed further in the legislative process,” announced chairperson Tom Sammurtok, citing, “the overwhelming lack of consensus in support of the bill in such areas as language of instruction, the role of district education authorities and increased employment of Inuit teachers.”
If the bill is allowed to fall off the order paper, as suggested by the committee, the work of reviewing and revising the Education Act would be up to the next government.
The next territorial election is scheduled for the fall of 2017.
Quassa, as the bill’s sponsoring minister, does have the option to move that Bill 37 go to the Committee of the Whole – but, as it stands now, only at this government’s final fall sitting scheduled for September, due to timelines in the Rules of the Legislative Assembly. That motion would be voted on by the members of the Legislative Assembly. Or, Quassa could present a motion to waive the 120-day period when the next sitting begins May 30.
Also at the next sitting, the option is available for members to introduce a motion that Bill 37 be withdrawn from the order paper – which sounds exactly like what the standing committee said it would do.
Outside government, those opposed to Bill 37 have a lot to say.
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) president Aluki Kotierk told Nunavut News/North that while the standing committee’s decision was good news, the focus now needs to be on the Inuit Employment Plan for teachers.
“One that’s robust enough, that’s resourced,” she said.
“We’ve been willing and open to work with the Department of Education. We’ve been encouraging them to provide us with a draft.”
That draft has reportedly been recently delivered, but Kotierk says her staff has described it as “a plan for a plan.”
Kotierk cites a lack of budgeted resources and a lack of dedicated staff as proof the GN isn’t serious in moving forward with bilingual education.
“There’s frustration on our side that things are so slow,” she said.
Quassa says anyone who knows governments knows they are slow. And he rejects the idea that the dream of bilingual education will die on his watch.
“Inuktitut is a big issue and certainly is mine because I’m the one who negotiated this Nunavut land claims to ensure that we retain our culture and language. And as the minister of education that has always been my priority,” he said.
Kotierk is looking for commitment from the GN.
“If you have a priority you need to make sure there are resources dedicated to the priority,” said Kotierk.
BREAKER: What changed?
Kotierk and NTI are not the only ones frustrated. Nunavut News/North received a two-page letter from former Department of Education staff member Shirley Tagalik who was the manager for Early Childhood and School Services Division beginning in 1999.
“I was hired mostly because I was the only Nunavut educator with a Masters in Education, specifically in curriculum and instruction,” she told Nunavut News/North in an e-mail, adding sometime in 2004 that division became Curriculum and School Services.
“When I left the department (in 2009), the dismantling of our division was already well underway.”
Jobs were moved from Arviat – where curriculum work was being done – to Iqaluit, explained Tagalik.
“But since there were not Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ)-qualified people there, (the director) shifted the job roles and began to dismantle IQ as well. Over the ensuing 8 years this has just been scaled up as QQ (Qallunaat Qaujimajatuqangit) staff do what they know and try to discredit what they don’t understand – IQ.
“Those of us who worked to develop a made-in-Nunavut curriculum have been marginalized and discredited. So we have been removed from being able to impact the system in any way – unless we are willing to run for government.”
Tagalik says there was a great deal of work that had been completed by 2009 – foundation documents, curriculum and other work – that never saw the light of day.
“I think that we were very close … We would have had one of the most exciting senior high offerings anywhere in Canada. We were pretty far along with junior high, but we needed to have more modules available in Inuktitut.”
Nunavut News/North requested an interview with Deputy Minister Kathy Okpik who has been in her position for 11 years, even as ministers have changed. The department instead offered Assistant Deputy Minister John MacDonald, who has been in his position since Oct. 2014.
“When you think about the 2008 (Education) Act, that piece of legislation would have very quickly overtaken previous strategies, documents or vision documents in terms of priority, in terms of allocation of resources,” said MacDonald.
“In 2009, as legislation came into force, frankly the department would have been – and was, I can certainly tell you that – it had to shift gears and focus on, first of all, the implementation schedule that was associated with the act. There were pieces coming into force, some of them vastly different from what would have been the case before.”
MacDonald says the department would have been busy developing new regulations, training, support and communications.
“It’s often lost, in terms of the general discourse, how much of an effort and what the magnitude of that type of project is. There are no other jurisdictions that have, from scratch, created an Education Act, certainly not in the last 50 to 60 years.”
As for previous curriculum which may have been developed and the apparent halt in progress, MacDonald said the time-frame fits with the department shifting focus, adding the momentum prior to 2008 would have been due to department staff working within already existing legislation inherited from the Northwest Territories.
MacDonald also said that this government’s focus is the early years and literacy.
Meanwhile, Tagalik is angry.
“What a travesty is being brought onto Inuit by the few gatekeepers who believe that the system they know must be superior when in fact it has had years to prove its worth and continues to fail our children on every front,” she said.
BREAKER: What about rights?
Qajaaq Ellsworth left his position as Quassa’s executive assistant largely over Bill 37, which he considers problemetic for many reasons he shared with Nunavut News/North over the course of two hours.
“As soon as I learned the proposal was going to be delaying the coming into force of ILPA (Inuit Language Protection Act) by at least ten years, I had serious concerns about that,” said Ellsworth.
“Also being aware that ever since any type of consultation’s been done with Inuit over the last 50 years – you can open up any report – all these big meetings Inuit have taken part in over many, many years … One of the top recommendations is always for education in our language.”
Ellsworth says he struggled to understand the department’s motivation to create a system ill-suited to Nunavut’s unique circumstances of language and culture and to bring forward the proposals in Bill 37.
“It seems to me the government is more interested in protecting their own butts than they are bringing forward positive change,” said Ellsworth.
He points to Quassa seeking and receiving delegation of authority for sections 8 and 9 of the Inuit Language Protection Act, for which the Minister of Culture and Heritage is normally responsible. Minister George Kuksuk signed Section 8 and 9, which relates to education, over to Quassa.
“There are provisions in the Inuit Language Protection Act for the education system. But the Inuit Language Protection Act is a stand-alone piece of legislation that deals specifically with the protection of Inuit languages,” said Ellsworth, adding dates were part of the Inuit Language Protection Act not the Education Act.
“The fact that we have the guaranteed legal right to education in our own language is pretty substantial,” said Ellsworth, adding that should not be walked back.
MacDonald said the two acts needed to be working together.
“We can’t have conflicts in sections and timelines or implementation schedules. So we said, ‘In proposing amendments to the Education Act, let’s also propose amendments to the Inuit Language Protection Act.”
He adds: “With Bill 37, there was a vocal group that did not want to see Bill 37 go through. That’s their prerogative. If you’re looking at it from the lens of language protection and you don’t like the proposed changes that might be a way of looking at it. The intent was only to avoid a conflict. I would respectfully disagree with somebody thinking that we’re trying to create a loophole.”
As for Kotierk, she questions how it is a Grade 9 student in Nunavut who speaks Inuktitut walks into a Nunavut classroom and cannot speak Inuktitut because their teachers are not Inuktut speakers.
“How different is that from residential school … in our own homeland. How different is that,” she asked.