Heritage centres, language authority among initiatives to fortify Inuktitut in Nunavik

Zebedee Nungak signing the “Declaration to a Secure Future for Inuktitut in Nunavik”. ( Miriam Dewar/Makivvik Corporation)

Inuit Heritage Centres and an Inuktitut Language Authority are among the key initiatives highlighted a recent declaration to strengthen Inuktitut in Nunavik, Avataq language specialist Zebedee Nungak said. 

“We live in Quebec where French is supreme, and our language is eroding dramatically,” Nungak told Eye on the Arctic in phone interview.

“Our people have defined the need for a formal institution and heritage centres which will be a safeguard and a protector, a guardian and a guarantor, to make sure our language and culture survives.”

The creation of the centres and authority were first identified in Avataq’s 2012 Illirijavut: That Which We Treasure report on language, a survey that reached out to the population for their thoughts and priorities on strengthening Inuktitut.

In October, Makivvik Corporation, which represents the interests of Inuit in Quebec when dealing with governments, and Avataq, the cultural organization for Inuit in Quebec, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to bolster Inuktitut in Nunavik.

Delegates in the meeting room at the conference where the language MoU was signed. (Elise Legault,/Avataq)

The organizations said the MOU would ensure financial resources for the initiation of several long-planned initiatives identified in the 2012 survey, with Avataq able to access to up to $36 million for language projects in Nunavik over the next five years.

The MOU also mandates annual meetings between the two organizations to discuss language priorities for the region, a crucial commitment given the current state of Inuktitut.

Quick Facts: Inuktitut in Nunavik
  • The percentage of the population that could speak the Inuit language in Inuit areas of Canada went down in all regions except Nunavik according to the 2021 census.
  • The 2021 census also found that Nunavik had the largest percentage of Inuktitut speakers per population, with 98 per cent of children able to speak the language.

The MOU also mandates annual meetings between the two organizations to discuss language priorities for the region, a crucial commitment given the current state of Inuktitut.

Unique situation in French-speaking province 

Nungak said Nunavik is regularly in communication with the three other Inuit regions in Canada on language and culture issues, but that it needs its own language authority to navigate its unique cultural and political situation as the sole Inuit region located in a French-speaking province.

“We are living in a very particular province in a very particular country,” Nungak said. “There’s all sorts of pitfalls, traps and exclusions for the Inuit language, like the fact that they won’t give us official language status, and so the focus of our authority would be strictly on Nunavik.”

Nungak said they are planning a two-year period to work out the authority’s exact structure and mandate.

Inuit Heritage Centres housing archival footage, audio recordings of legends, stories and history, displays of traditional culture, and workshops for making traditional items like kayaks and clothing out of animals skins, was also identified as a priority. 

“Right now in our communities, the closest thing to an institutional home for Inuit language, culture and identity is in the schools for children, but we need gathering places for the teaching of Inuit skills and maintaining constant contact with our history, language and culture and ensuring our descendants are exposed to these things.”

Katuaq – Nuuk’s cultural centre. The architecture was inspired by the Northern Lights. Nungak said they’d like to see the heritage centres in Nunavik follow a similar model of being designed to reflect Arctic and Inuit culture. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

“These wouldn’t be hand-me-down shacks. They would be world class modern buildings that are very pleasant places, not just to visit,  but to see how Inuit take pride in their identity, language and culture.”

“We are being being carpet-bombed by English and French”

The 2021 census found that Nunavik had the largest percentage of Inuktitut speakers per population, with 98 per cent of children able to speak the language, but Nungak said the number is disceiving.

“The statistic is impressive but the reality is quite dismal, because the Inuktitut we’re speaking now is only about 40% of what our grandparent’s command of the language was,” Nungak said. “We are being being carpet-bombed by English and French through television, radio, computers and video games. Inuktitut is eroding dramatically and we are conducting ourselves in semi-panic mode to try to save it.”

The legacy of government policies, such as Canada’s residential school system which aimed to assimilate Indigenous children into the dominant culture while suppressing their native languages, is something Inuit still need to fight against today, Nungak said.

“The state had taken a lot, and imposed a lot, on the language, culture and identity of Inuit. And in our reports, and in our approaches, we are challenging the state, whether federal or provincial, to provide resources for keeping our language and culture alive.”

Comments, tips or story ideas? Contact Eilís at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Inuttitut language revitalization campaign underway in Labrador Inuit region, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Everyone encouraged to boost Sami language visibility in Finland, Norway and Sweden this week, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Indigenous and minority language names for Norway now have official status, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: German project to house everything published in Siberian and Arctic languages to seek new funding, Eye on the Arctic

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

United States: Inuit leaders applaud UN move to designate International Decade of Indigenous Languages, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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