Greenland offers a roadmap for how to get Inuktut taught in Nunavut's schools

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Peter Olsen, Greenland's minister of education, culture, sports and church, says local languages are strongly present in primary schools. The country is still working to bolster Greenlandic in high schools and university. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Peter Olsen, Greenland's minister of education, culture, sports and church, says local languages are strongly present in primary schools. The country is still working to bolster Greenlandic in high schools and university. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada - image credit)

When Peter Olsen was in Grade 1, the only language he was allowed to learn in was Danish.

Now the minister of education in Greenland, Olsen said his country has made strides toward entrenching the Greenlandic languages in the education system and it's particularly strong in primary schools — but there's still more to do, especially when it comes to teaching Greenlandic in high school and beyond.

"Many get their education in Greenlandic, but we also have some problems as to how many children and youth are getting through their eduction and then [going] to the next education level," Olsen explained.

Greenland is an example Nunavut can look to, say some Inuit, for inspiration on how to teach Inuktut — which encompasses all dialects including Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun — in schools. Greenlandic and Inuktut both fall under the same umbrella of Inuit languages, but each have different dialects.

"Because we see ... our neighbours being able to achieve that, we have the sense that also Inuit in Nunavut should and could be able to achieve that," said Aluki Kotierk, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI). NTI is the legal organization that represents Inuit in Nunavut, ensuring the federal and territorial governments fulfil their obligations set out in the Nunavut Agreement.

NTI filed a statement of claim last October against the Government of Nunavut arguing the government discriminates against Inuit students by not offering enough education in Inuktut. That claim followed the government's controversial decision to pass Bill 25, which pushed back the deadline until 2039 to have bilingual Inuktut and English education taught at all grade levels.

Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada
Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada

Kotierk pointed to research NTI commissioned in 2019 that showed Inuit students reverting to speaking English in most schools and learning curriculum that wasn't necessarily based in Nunavut.

"It's a subtractive type of education, while in Kalaallit Nunaat [Greenland], it's an additive kind of education where you're not stripping away a student's identity and their self-worth as to how they belong in the world," she said.

"There's a strong foundation of who they are and how they can contribute to the world, and once a person has that strong foundation, they're in a better position to be able to learn other things about the global community. And I think that's what we aspire to here in Nunavut."

A long history of Greenlandic

Greenland's history is the key to understanding why the Greenlandic languages are so strong, Olsen explained.

Up until 1953, the country's students learned in Greenlandic. But that year, Denmark officially changed Greenland's status from a colony to a Danish county, forcing Greenlanders to adopt the Danish language.

It was thanks to protests by students in the 1970s that the country adopted Greenlandic again.

"The youth said, 'No — we're Greenlandic. We have to be educated in Greenlandic.' That's when the whole shift started," Olsen said.

"It was an important step for more self-governing."

Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada
Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada

Over the last 40 years, Greenland's government has worked to grow the number of Greenlandic-speaking teachers in schools. Olsen said that number has tripled since the 1980s, when roughly 300 teachers spoke the local languages.

Challenges still persist though — Greenlandic is stronger along the coast than in Nuuk — and because there aren't as many opportunities within Greenland for people to become high school teachers, many teachers come over from Denmark and teach in Danish.

A work in progress

Alliaq Kleist Petrussen used to be a high school teacher in Greenland. She said the ratio of Greenlandic to Danish teachers is overwhelmingly weighted toward the latter: when she was teaching, she was one of four Greenlandic teachers in a school that had 40 instructors.

High school materials and books were in Danish too, and translating them was expensive.

Kleist Petrussen said part of the problem is that there aren't enough Greenlandic teachers who have a master's degree — a requirement if they want to teach high school.

She said that also affects students coming into high school who are used to learning in Greenlandic.

"I think many students get lower grades ... because they can't sometimes find the words in Danish, so it can be hard to express [themseves]," she said.

Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada
Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada

Her mother, Birthe, teaches grades 5 and 6 at Hans Lynge School in Nuuk.

Birthe said the presence of Greenlandic in primary schools is very good. In areas outside of Nuuk, like northern Greenland, primary school students speak mostly Greenlandic. In Nuuk, many of her students speak both Greenlandic and Danish, which she said opens up possibilities for them.

"When you only have one language, you are [limiting] yourself," she said.

Olsen pointed to unilingualism as a growing challenge. Greenland's problem is the opposite of Nunavut's, he noted — in Nunavut, many people speak English better than their own language, while in Greenland, people now need to strengthen their ability to speak other languages besides Greenlandic.

Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada
Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada

"We have not that many challenges, because our language is very strong, but there are some aspects that we have to be stronger in," he noted.

Still, Greenland's efforts to bolster local languages in schools could be successful in Nunavut as well, Kotierk said, if there was the political will and support to increase the number of Inuktut speakers teaching in schools.

"I think it demonstrates that Inuktut could be used in all grade levels and all subject matters, so students could graduate with Inuktut as the language of instruction," she said.

"I think we can take inspiration from that."

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