Inuit languages declining in Canada’s Nunavut territory, stats show

The number of Inuit children aged 0 to 4 years who had Inuktut as their mother tongue, dropped 10 percentage points between 2001 and 2016, the Statistics Canada report found. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)
Inuit languages declined in Nunavut in the 15 years between 2001 and 2016, according to a Statistics Canada report released on Tuesday, which was Nunavut Day.

Fewer Nunavummiut are reporting that they speak Inuktut, a term that encompasses all Inuit languages spoken in Nunavut, as their mother tongue, resulting in a territory-wide drop from 72 per cent to 65 per cent.

Most of those who do speak it are Inuit. However, 95 non-Inuit reported Inuktut as their first language in 2016. Inuit remained a stable 85 per cent of Nunavut’s population during the 15-year span the report looked at.

We must take action.

Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

The percentage of Nunavummiut who can conduct a conversation in Inuktut dropped from 79 per cent in 2001 to 76.8 per cent in 2016.

Though the number of people who could hold a conversation in Inuktut rose by more than 6,000 in the 15-year period, the population of Nunavut also grew 12.7 per cent during that time, resulting in an overall percentage decrease.

In 2016, 89 per cent of Nunavut’s Inuit population, or 26,880 people, could have a conversation in Inuktut — whereas 8.3 per cent of non-Inuit, or 450 people, could do the same.

Statistics Canada released the report, Evolution of the language situation in Nunavut, 2001 to 2016, in all of the territory’s four official languages.

Ninety-eight per cent of Inuit in Nunavut over the age of 55 said they speak Inuktut very well. (Statistics Canada)

Adults tend to be more confident in their Inuktut languages skills than children and youth, and those who live in the Qikiqtaaluk (north and east) and Kivalliq (south) regions have higher confidence in their Inuktut skills than those who live in the Kitikmeot (west), the report suggests.

“In 2001, 78.5 per cent of Inuit children aged 0 to 4 years had Inuktut as their mother tongue, compared to 68.4 per cent in 2016,” the report said.

Ninety-eight per cent of Inuit in Nunavut over the age of 55 said they speak Inuktut very well.

In Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk, where Inuinnaqtun is more prevalent, confidence in language skills was the lowest. Considered as a whole, only 57 per cent of people in the Kitikmeot region felt they could have a conversation in Inuktut, compared to 88 per cent in the Kivalliq and 77 per cent in the Qikiqtaaluk.

Iqaluit brings the Qikiqtaaluk average down considerably: 95 per cent of Inuit in the region who live outside the capital city reported they could have a conversation in Inuktut.

Workplace Inuktut use increasing

Inuktut use in the workplace is clawing back from previous losses. Though Inuktut use at work is down overall from 2001, it increased over the last five years of the surveyed period.

From 2011 to 2016, Nunavut workers who said they used Inuktut at work rose from 57.8 per cent to 60.7 per cent. In 2001, it was 65 per cent.

Twenty-seven per cent of Nunavut workers say Inuktut is the main language they use at the office.

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), the organization that represents Inuit in Nunavut, announced its commitment to an “Inuktut-first workplace” on Nunavut Day.

“We can no longer wait for governments to deliver on their promises. We must take action,” said Aluki Kotierk, NTI’s president, in a news release.

The organization said it plans to lead by example. It said all NTI staff have completed language assessments and they will receive on-the-job language training and support based on their needs.

NTI says it’s committed to developing new Inuktut terminology in technical fields, finance and law.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada’s new Indigenous languages law does not protect Inuit languages, leaders say, CBC News

Finland: Budget cuts threaten international Sámi language cooperation, Yle News

Sweden: Calls for more Indigenous protection in Sweden on Sami national day, Radio Sweden

United States: Indigenous leaders at UN meeting push for decade dedicated to language revitalization, CBC News

Sara Frizzell, CBC News

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