Future of lawsuit over language of instruction in Nunavut, Canada rests with judge

A school bus sits idle in the hamlet of Kugaaruk, Nunavut, on Sept. 29, 2020. It’s up to a Nunavut judge now to decide if Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. will have a chance to argue its case on Inuktut language education. (John Last/CBC)

By Sarah Krymalowski · CBC News

Arguments over Nunavut government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit wrapped Wednesday

It’s up to a Nunavut judge now to decide if Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. will have a chance to argue its case on Inuktut language education.

Last October, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) filed a lawsuit claiming that the Government of Nunavut’s failure to implement Inuktut language schooling in the territory amounts to a violation of the right to equality for Nunavut Inuit.

Wednesday was the second and final day of the hearing, held in the Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit, on the government’s motion to strike the case.

A lawyer for the government argued that Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects against discrimination, doesn’t apply to language of Instruction in schools.

Maxime Faille said in his closing arguments that allowing the case to go to trial would go against Section 23 of the Charter, which protects the rights of English- and French-speaking Canadians to attend school in their first language.

“This discrimination, that of providing for language rights for English and French, and denying, and not providing for, such rights to other linguistic groups, is expressly provided for in the constitution and the law of the land,” he argued.

“It’s not that Section 23 doesn’t discriminate but that it does, but that the constitution authorizes that form of discrimination.”

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. president Aluki Kotierk, centre, enters the Nunavut Court of Justice to file a lawsuit against the Nunavut government last October. (Nick Murray/CBC News)

The counsel for NTI opposed this argument, saying that because Inuktut language instruction wouldn’t interfere with the right to be educated in English or French, Section 23 was not relevant.

NTI lawyer Tim Dickson argued when it comes to the provision of education, Inuit of Nunavut are uniquely discriminated against.

“No other racial or ethnic group is in the same position as the Inuit of Nunavut who constitute such a large majority of the population of the territory, their homeland, but who, when they go to ordinary public schools to learn, are compelled to try to do so in the language of a minority, in English, the same language their grandparents were forced to use in residential school,” he argued.

NTI seeks K-12 Inuktut education

The lawsuit from NTI came on the heels of Bill 25, legislation from the Nunavut Legislative Assembly that substituted a commitment to offer schooling in Inuktut from K-12 by 2020 with one that makes a single Inuktut Language Arts Class available to all students by 2039.

In the suit, NTI asks the court to compel the Government of Nunavut to “provide Inuit language education from Grade 4 to Grade 12 within five years of the court order,” and to develop a plan for Inuktut language education within six months of the court order.

Nunavut already offers education in Inuktut for students up to Grade 3.

Alternatively, NTI asks the court to repeal Bill 25, which would mean the law would revert to the previous timeline for offering full Inuktut instruction to all grades by 2019.

Justice Paul Bychok, who heard the case, said that given the complexity of the case, he could not yet give a timeline for when he would have his decision.

“I have absolutely no doubt that this case is being followed very carefully throughout our 25 communities and I shall certainly give you all the attention it deserves,” he told the court.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Nunavik school board vows to fight new Quebec language law, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Sami education conference looks at how to better serve Indigenous children, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Can cross-border cooperation help decolonize Sami-language education, Eye on the Arctic

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