Iqaluit resident spurred to action as Inuktitut falters

“We are the first residents of Iqaluit,” says Bernice Clarke, recalling her family history and her grandparents’ move from Kimmirut to Apex. “As I get older, I get more proud of that. Being a first resident is a pretty big deal.”

Clarke vigorously promotes and puts Inuit culture first in everything she does, such as teaching Inuktitut, government work, soap-making and TikTok creation. It’s her mission to fight what she calls “the virus” — the subtle erasure of Inuit language and culture by mainstream media and the English language.

Being of mixed-race but raised in Inuktitut and her mother’s culture on the land, Clarke wanted to raise her children the same way.

“It was so very hard,” she recalls, “because I had no support other than my husband encouraging me.”

She’s currently raising their 12-year-old daughter using the language at home.

“I won’t speak English [to my child], it feels like a swear word.”

Of growing up in Iqaluit, she recalls “at that time, everyone was using the [Inuit] language, everywhere… but over time, that’s changed… in the 1990s there were fears and warning over [loss] of the Inuit language. I always felt that my house was on fire and no one’s listening. I just wanted to do something, help.”

After working for the Government of Nunavut for a year, Clarke moved over to the Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI).

Taking advantage of the NTI’s career training and education programs, she fast-tracked a two-year degree in Inuit studies (Qimattuvik certificate) at Nunavut Arctic College. That was followed by adult Inuktitut courses.

Clarke then got her Aqqusiurvik diploma for Inuktut instructors. NTI once again fast-tracked the course for her so she could go straight into using her newly acquired skills.

“After that I thought I could take the knowledge and become a teacher.”

After 15 years of working, Clarke “made the leap” to chart her own course. “I was so scared because I was taking a pay cut, losing my insurance… so I could start building Inuktitut, and helping myself [in the process]. My goal is to be an Elder — that’s part of the plan… I felt a calling. I changed careers to protect my language.”

Building a business

Clarke created Kuutuu Consulting in addition to Uasau Soap, which she runs with her husband, Justin. It was with Uasau that the couple first got training in how to run an Indigenous-owned business, and then how to grow it with regulation and federal procurement through the Nunavut Economic Developers Association.

“The federal government’s mandate,” explains Justin Clarke, “is to have five per cent of Indigenous businesses [supplemented] with federal money. To tell you the truth, it’s under-utilized.”

Justin estimates that less than two per cent of the potential five per cent is being claimed.

“Even to run a small soap business, we were petrified,” he said.

However, working with other, larger companies and the federal government results in more opportunities and investments.

“The scary part is for an inexperienced person to start [a business],” said Justin.

Turning a corner during Covid

During the pandemic lockdown, Bernice Clarke decided that her true desires were in working for herself to showcase and promote Inuit language and culture through various platforms.

Financially supported by their soap business, she decided she wanted to continue to be in business for herself, and went from teaching basic Inuktitut to government employees to independent teaching from home.

However, Clarke was interested in teaching more than simply the Inuit language — she learned to teach the ancient rites and customs that go hand-in-hand with reclaiming Inuktitut as a people, such as qulliq lighting and opening ceremonies. This way, “I include my traditional knowledge into my business.”

“Our language is rich, it’s worth saving, and living in it,” Clarke said.

She and Lily Maniapik and NTI have brought a lawsuit against the GN alleging that the territorial government has ignored its legal obligation to teach Inuktitut throughout all the public school years.

“I am in a lawsuit against my own government,” said Clarke. “I got emotional when our lawyer started talking about no Inuktitut in healthcare. My mom died under a doctor’s care in 2015. The coroner’s investigation found that Inuktitut was not used and often [she] had no interpreters, and one of the recommendations [was] to have Inuktitut in the healthcare system.

“I was strong until they spoke of that.”

It will be months until Clarke and her fellow plaintiffs will know if their lawsuit will proceed.

“As Inuit, we have learned your language, we wear your clothing, and we include and welcome you to do the same. Some people were not ready to hear those words, people are so afraid,” she said. “As a visitor, you have a duty to help, not be a problem…We need visitors here that are aware and awake and multi-culturally sensitive.”

On being a creator and Inuk artisan, Clarke also explains appropriation versus appreciation.

“As long as you don’t profit off our intellectual property, you are appreciating. Buyer beware, authenticity matters. Where you buy matters. Collaboration also matters if you’re not from that culture,” she said. “You need representation. That’s reconciliation right there.”

“We can tell our own stories, and [make] our own income, so that we can take up these spaces.”

Kira Wronska Dorward, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunavut News