Inuit Enduring Cultural Genocide As Languages Disappear, UN Hears

Samantha Beattie
Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., spoke at a United Nations meeting on Indigenous Issues about how Inuit languages are endangered.

Seated in the United Nations assembly hall, Nunavut's Aluki Kotierk told Indigenous leaders from around the world about the "devastating" loss of traditional languages that continues to plague Canada's Inuit people.

If Inuit languages, collectively known as Inuktut, disappear so too does traditional knowledge and teachings, said Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., an organization that lobbies government to keep promises made to Indigenous people.

This linguicide, a form of cultural genocide, is the result of the federal government's continued investment and promotion of English and French in Nunavut at the expense of Inuktut, especially in schools, Kotierk said Monday at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The UN has declared 2019 the year of Indigenous languages.

"The current education system is failing our Indigenous Arctic children," she said. "Due to the interrelated, interdependent and invisible nature of our rights, such conditions can be devastating."

A member of a high school choir performs during a ceremony where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered an official apology to Inuit for the federal government's management of tuberculosis in the Arctic from the 1940s to the 1960s on March 8, 2019.

Education in mother tongues such as Inuktut is more important than students' socioeconomic conditions when it comes to them succeeding in school, Kotierk said.

In 2019, Canadian Heritage invested 39 times more money in French services than Inuktut services, despite close to 60 per cent of residents citing Inuit languages as their mother tongue, according to data from Nunavut's Office of The Languages Commissioner.

Canadian Heritage dedicated $4.5 million to French language services for 595 French speakers, more than $8,800 per person, and $5.1 million to Indigenous language services. With 22,565 Inuktut speakers, that's about $226 per person.

The Ministry of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism recognized Indigenous languages are endangered and disappearing as "a direct consequence of the government's past actions meant to destroy Indigenous cultures," said spokesperson Simon Ross.

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Three quarters of the 90 Indigenous languages in Canada are at risk of extinction, according to UNESCO.

The 2019 federal budget committed more than $400 million over five years to revitalize Indigenous languages, said Canadian Heritage. The government has also proposed Bill C-91, an act respecting Indigenous languages.

"This investment is an important next step," Ross said.

Experts say Inuktut use is declining at an alarming rate. York University linguist Ian Martin wrote in a 2017 report that by 2051, only four per cent of Inuit in Nunavut will speak it at home, while English is becoming the predominant language.

Kotierk said this trend demonstrates that colonization in Nunavut continues because loss of Inuktut further separates Inuit from their culture and heritage. For example, in Inuktut there is very specific terminology to describe hunting tools for bowhead whales.

"Language is often the expression of an environment you grew up in, and is intricately intertwined with our culture," she said in an interview.

Inuit hunters, left to right, Meeka Mike, Lew Philip and Joshua Kango skin a polar bear on the ice as the sun sets during the traditional hunt on Frobisher Bay near Tonglait, Nunavut on Feb. 2, 2003.

Nunavut Tunngavik commissioned a new report by linguistic researchers and a human rights lawyer, which found none of the territory's 43 schools had adequate bilingual programs for Inuktut and English and only one school provided students access to Inuktut immersion up to Grade 5.

The researchers found that the lack of Inuktut education in Nunavut contradicts domestic laws, including the Inuit Language Protection Act, Nunavut Education Act and Official Languages Act, as well as violates Canada's international commitments.

"The failure of the education system in Nunavut to ensure full written and oral fluency and high levels of competence in the languages of the Inuit arguably compromises the ability of the state to deliver education that is 'culturally appropriate,' to enable children to 'participate effectively' in Nunavut society," the report said, as required under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by Canada.

Nunavut was established 20 years ago, for "Inuit to have a homeland to operate in Inuit culture and with the Inuktut language," said Kotierk. For that to truly be realized, "There needs to be an ideological change in how the government operates."

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