Source: Nunavut Department of Education

Inuit parents have launched a lawsuit against the Government of Nunavut for its failure to provide Inuktut language schooling to students. The two parents, along with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI)—the corporation that legally represents the Inuit of Nunavut in treaty negotiations—assert that the government is violating the constitutional rights of Inuit children to not be discriminated against on the basis of race and ethnicity. The case highlights not only the problem of language loss as a form of cultural genocide against the Inuit, but also the failure of the establishment of Nunavut to advance or defend the interests of the Inuit within Canada.

As of 2018, 9,300 students in Nunavut spoke Inuktut—a term that encompasses all dialects used in Nunavut—as a first language, 430 spoke English, and 90 spoke French. However, out of the 43 schools in Nunavut, 42 provide instruction in English. The remaining school provides French language instruction. Only a quarter of the schools provide any option for Inuktut instruction. In terms of funding for education, which is provided by the federal government, roughly $186 is spent per Inuktut-speaking student, compared to the $8,189 spent on francophones. While the article did not mention the amount spent per anglophone student, there are currently 452 English-speaking teachers, which is more than the number of English students! More than half of educators in Nunavut are from the south, and none are trained to teach in Inuktut. 

This imbalance has an obvious impact on Inuit students’ success in school—dropout rates are as high as 70 per cent—with all the accompanying effects on employment and income. Moreover, the English-dominated education system is a main cause of language loss in Nunavut. 

While 85 per cent of the population of Nunavut is Inuit, only 64 per cent spoke Inuktut at home, according to the 2016 census. According to a 2017 report, the use of Inuktut at home is declining at roughly 12 per cent per decade. At this rate, Inuktut as a living language has a clear and looming expiration date. 

Cultural genocide continues

This is a direct result of the colonization of the Inuit by the Canadian state. One of the key mechanisms for the cultural genocide carried out by the residential school system was suppressing the use of Indigenous languages. To quote the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report: “The school language policies created painful divisions within families, making it difficult, if not impossible, for children to communicate with their parents, grandparents, and other family members. They also struck at Aboriginal societies’ ability to transmit their cultural beliefs and practices—both intimately connected to language—from one generation to the next.” 

While the formal system of residential schools is gone, the impact of denying Inuit students an education in their own language is the same. This comparison was also drawn by NTI president Aluki Kotierk: “In today’s schools, like residential schools of the past, Nunavut Inuit are prevented from learning Inuktut in favour of English or French. Linguicide by any other name is just as damaging.”

It would be wrong to say that the government has failed to provide Inuit students with an education. That would imply that an attempt was made. In 1990, when the government of Brian Mulroney was negotiating the treaty that would become the Nunavut agreement, instructions to the federal lawyer specified that, “The Final Agreement shall not … provide general linguistic guarantees for use of Inuktitut in government and the legal and educational system in the claims area.” And in 1998, when Paul Martin created the first budget for Nunavut, funding meant to provide for the use of Inuktut in government was removed by finance officials behind closed doors. Since before the formation of Nunavut, the Canadian state has been actively working to suppress the use of the Inuit language. 

There is already sufficient proof that all of the federal government’s gestures towards “truth and reconciliation” are no more than empty words. The state of education in Nunavut further demonstrates that while the way that the Canadian state oppresses Indigenous people has changed over the years, the fundamental fact of that oppression has not. 

The Government of Nunavut is not a government for the Inuit

However, the lawsuit has not been filed against the Government of Canada, but against the Government of Nunavut. While the creation of the Territory of Nunavut in 1999 was supposed to give Inuit people greater control over their affairs, this promise has not been realized. 

The relief that the NTI is seeking with the lawsuit is for the court to either replace or reverse amendments that were made to Nunavut’s Education Act in 2020. The original Education Act, passed in 2009, committed to making bilingual education available in all schools from K-12 by the 2019 school year. Not only did the 2020 amendments push that deadline to 2039, it scaled back the commitment from providing bilingual education to merely adding an Inuktut language arts course to the curriculum. This legislation was rightly decried as cultural genocide. 

This is not the first time that the territorial government has failed abysmally in the sphere of education. In 2017, a review of the Nunavut Teacher Education Program—which is intended to increase the proportion of Inuit educators—found that the program “is not capable of producing a bilingual, Inuit teacher workforce,” and that teachers who went through the NTEP were not adequately prepared for the job. It also reported that the instructors hired by the NTEP were not committed to the program and often showed up late. These results were not made public until the review was leaked to the public in 2019. During the two intervening years, the Government of Nunavut lied about the status of the review and hid its results from the Nunavut Teachers’ Association. 

Whether or not the lawsuit is successful, it will not change the underlying fact that the territorial government does not govern in the interests of the Inuit, and it is not sustainable to take it to court over every issue where it fails. 

Some might point to the under-representation of Inuit in government as an explanation for this. While the Nunavut Land Claims agreement of 1993 said that jobs in the government should reflect the population, currently only 51 per cent of government jobs are filled by Inuit, while they make up 84 per cent of the population. It is worth noting, too, that the government pushed back its deadline to be operating in Inuktut from 2020 to 2040. There doesn’t seem to be much of a hurry to increase the role of Inuit in government. 

However, this is not a sufficient explanation. It is true that the distribution of government positions does not reflect the population. However, it is the members of the legislative assembly—the vast majority of whom are Inuk—who are dragging their feet on making significant changes. To explain the delays to the Education Act, Education Minister David Joanasie said, “While we all want to see the delivery of bilingual education in our schools as soon as possible, we also know that we need to build a strong foundation that will enable us to reach this goal effectively,” an excuse as meaningless as anything you’d hear from a southern politician. 

The government of Nunavut cannot govern in the interests of Inuit people on the basis of capitalism. It is a simple question of who controls the purse strings. The vast majority of the territorial budget, 88.5 per cent, comes from the federal government. Moreover, the founding legislation of the Nunavut Act, while giving the territory jurisdiction over the promotion of language, also prevents any diminution in the status of English or French. While this may sound fair enough on paper as ideally no one language should be favoured over another, the law acts as “one-way ratchet”, and prevents the repurposing of limited funds to provide education and services in Inuktut. This means that in practice, English and French remain prioritized over Inuktut. 

The suppression of Inuktut, and the practice of assimilation, keeps the Inuit poor, easily exploited, and less able to assert their interests as a group within Canada. Moreover, the predominance of English in Nunavut makes it easier to import a transient workforce of southerners that the oil, gas, and mining corporations can use in resource extraction, who are more easily kept aloof from local problems. While Canada’s GDP dropped by 5.3 per cent in 2020, the GDP of Nunavut actually went up by 3.5 per cent (the only other jurisdiction to see a rising GDP was the Yukon territory, with 1.1 per cent). This was mostly driven by gold, silver and iron mining operations. 

Nunavut is not a poor territory. Its population is kept impoverished in the interests of Canadian capitalism. The resources exist to invest in and provide a good standard of living for everyone living in Nunavut, including education in their first language. In order to achieve this, power must be taken out of the hands of the mining and extraction corporations, and Inuit communities must be able to decide how the wealth from their resources is invested. This will only happen in a system that is run for need instead of profit; it is only possible under socialism.