Comparatively speaking, Inuktut is a strong Indigenous language. In Nunavut, 65 percent of the population identify Inuktut as their mother tongue. This means that Nunavut is the only jurisdiction in Canada with a homogeneous public majority language that is not one of the two official languages of Canada — French and English. Nunavut is the only jurisdiction in the Americas where the public majority speak a pre-European language.
In 1993, when Nunavut Inuit entered into an agreement with Canada, there was an expectation that our language, Inuktut, would become even more prominent in all public arenas, including in the delivery of programs and services by the public and private sectors.
Unfortunately, 25 years later we have yet to see that realized. Inuktut is still not the working language of our public service. Unilingual Inuktut speakers continue to rely on family and friends to provide informal interpretation services to receive essential public services. As the annual report of Nunavut Tunnnavik Incorporated back in 2010 put it, “There is perhaps no issue of greater significance to Inuit in Nunavut and with wider political implications than the future of the Inuit language.”
With the creation of Nunavut, Canada missed a bold, nation-building opportunity. Canada could have recognized Inuktut as the founding language of Nunavut. Canada could have sufficiently funded and supported Inuktut so that it would be the working language of the territorial government. Inuktut as the language of government was costed out, but the Government of Canada’s Department of Finance decided to postpone funding it to a later date. That date has yet to come.
As Inuit wait for this later date, Inuktut use in Nunavut is declining by 1 percent per year. At this rate, by 2050 only 4 percent of us will be speaking Inuktut at home.
Historically, through residential schools, Canada funded buildings and personnel to actively strip Indigenous peoples of their culture, including their language. In this time of reconciliation, Canada has the responsibility to actively rebuild, strengthen and protect Indigenous languages. As Inuktut-speaking Canadian taxpayers, we expect this support from our government.
“There is perhaps no issue of greater significance to Inuit in Nunavut and with wider political implications than the future of the Inuit language, Inuktut.”
Our experience has shown the private sector is often more proactive and responsive in providing Inuktut language support . Bill Gates and Microsoft, in a partnership with Pirurvik Centre, worked on developing Inuktut language software. Inhabit Media has published a wide variety of Inuktut language books.
Nunavut has a vibrant society. We want to assert our identity as Inuit Canadians and simultaneously play an active role in the global community. Nunavut has a young population. Nearly 40 percent of the population is under the age of 20 years. Although broadband connection is slow, many Inuit have social media accounts.
Social media platforms, such as Facebook, can play a supportive and positive role in the promotion and protection of Inuktut by having their platforms available in Inuktut. An Inuktut syllabics app already exists on the iPhone which allows us to write in Inuktut. Social media can support the resurgence of Inuit cultural pride by developing culturally significant emojis such as inuksuit and uluit.
Social media is a tool we use to communicate and raise awareness about our way of life as Inuit. There have been effective social media campaigns by Inuit, such as the #sealfie campaign on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They gave Inuit a voice at a time when external interests discriminated against normal Inuit cultural practices.
The Government of Canada too must rise to the occasion. In a recent meeting with Mélanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage, I expressed the significance of constitutionally entrenching the Inuit language as a founding language of Canada within Nunavut. Inuktut would be treated equitably with English and French and receive funding to help with its protection. This would also ensure that the working language of the government is Inuktut and essential public services can be delivered in Inuktut.
Central to this discussion includes the need to invest in broadband in Nunavut. In a territory similar in size to Mexico, broadband will break down the barriers of distance and time. Improved connectivity allows Inuit to participate in the changes occurring in our society rather than being bystanders.
Inuit have a unique contribution to offer, much of it encoded in our language. Inuit want to establish, protect and grow the space for our language and culture on digital platforms, to help us contribute to the global community. The Government of Canada and the private sector, including social media companies, all play an important role to help facilitate this.
This article arose from a “Hard Questions” event on Indigenous culture and language online, cohosted by Facebook Canada and the 4Rs Youth Movement on May 14, 2018.
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