The Canadian territory of Nunavut, created in 1999, has a population of 26,665, of whom 85% claim Inuit identity (2001 Census data). Of these approximately 85% claim to speak the Inuit language at home. (ibid. “Inuit Language” subsumes two major dialect groupings: Inuinnaqtun in the west and Inuktitut in the East.) With their huge political majority and their geographical isolation, the Inuit ought to have no trouble maintaining their language, but the challenges they face demonstrate that minority language maintenance is a difficult process, even when the odds appear to be extremely favourable.
The government of Nunavut has recently introduced two language-related bills, which have now progressed to second reading in the legislative assembly. The first, Bill 6, is an official languages act which establishes Inuit Language, French and English as official languages of the territory. The second, Bill 7, is an Innuit language protection act that seeks to promote the maintenance of the Inuit Language.
Prof. Ian Martin, language policy consultant to the Nunavut government and to the Inuit organization, NTI (Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated), presented his assessment of the stituation in a talk at Glendon College of York University this past week.
Prof. Martin was cautiously optimistic, while pointing out that the endangerment of the Inuit language is at a crucial juncture. Of great concern is the school system, in which currently pupils are offered instruction in Inuit language up to grade 3; grade 4 is a transition year, and subsequently instruction is in English only, provided overwhelmingly by monolingual anglophone teachers with no background in ESL issues and, as temporary residents from the south, no prior knowledge of Inuit culture. This system has produced two language-impaired generations. The generation of elders, who retain the cultural and linguistic competence of the past, is passing on. Thus, despite the apparent vitality of Inuktitut in many communities (less so, Inuinnaqtun), the tipping point is now.
Bill 7 proclaims the right of all Nunavut residents to “Inuit language instruction” and provides for the gradual introduction of Inuit language instruction through to the end of secondary school. There is some concern, however, that this provision may be interpreted as referring to language classes, while only the use of the Inuit language as a medium of instruction will provide the basis for language revitilization. Even with the more beneficial interpretation, it is by no means clear where the necessary teaching personnel will come from. The bill also provides for the use of the Inuit languages as a [sic!] language of work in the public sector. Private sector compliance is voluntary, but supported.
The bill is not as strong as the famous Bill 101 that has reversed the erosion in the use of French in Quebec, and the main Inuit organizations, NTI and QIA (Qikiqtani Inuit Association), feel that the proposed laws are not strong enough to prevent further decline of the Inuit language.
Prof. Martin pointed out, however, that there are political constraints on the territorial assembly’s actions: since Nunavut is a territory, rather than a province, all the assembly’s legislation must pass through the federal parliament in Ottawa, which would be unlikely to support legislation as strong as Bill 101, given that parts of the latter have been judged by Canada’s supreme court to be in violation of the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms Canadian Encyclopedia).
Much is at stake. If the local political will can overcome the many practical obstacles, Nunavut may provide a model for language revitalization in other territorially-concentrated communities. Should it fail, the prospects for the world’s minority languages will be all the bleaker.