Forty Years of Struggle and Still No Right to Inuit Education in Nunavut

By Rasmussen, Derek | Our Schools, Our Selves, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Forty Years of Struggle and Still No Right to Inuit Education in Nunavut


Rasmussen, Derek, Our Schools, Our Selves


After 40 years of negotiating a land claim, a new territory, and a new government, how is it possible that lnuit still don't have their own school system in Nunavut?

What do you think of when you hear the word "Nunavut"? Polar bears? The Canadian Arctic? Perhaps you think of lnuit, the majority population, 85% of the people in the new territory?

But do you think of an entire school system that doesn't operate in the lnuit language? Do you think of lnuit language students studying an Alberta curriculum in English schools run by Ontario and Newfoundland teachers?

That is the sad reality. There is no school in Nunavut that offers K- 12 education in the lnuit language, the mother tongue spoken by 75% of lnuit.1 There is one Francophone school board in Nunavut which gets to operate its own K-12 French school, but there are no lnuit school boards. There are district education "authorities" with no authority, merely carrying out instructions sent by the Minister of Education of Nunavut - the same Nunavut government spending $3,400 each year for language education for each Francophone in the territory and only $48.50 on Inuktitut education for each Inuk.2

What should be obvious is that Nunavut's 10,000 Inuit students do not have the same rights as their 40 or so Francophone schoolmates.3 If you're a French parent, your child can go to the new $5 million French school in Iqaluit. And if you're an English parent you'll be able to send your kids to any one of the other 41 schools in Nunavut where they'll get instruction in their own language from mostly southern teachers. But if you're an Inuk parent, your child will be going to school in English because only two schools offer Inuktitut instruction beyond Grade 3 (and then only to Grade 6) and the remaining schools offer only 45 minutes a day of Inuktitut.4 Despite living in a territory with the highest number of Aboriginal language speakers in Canada, as an Inuk parent you will likely have to watch your child lose that language and culture because the new Education Act passed in the territory last September virtually guarantees that there will not be enough Inuit language teachers or Inuit curriculum until 2019 or later.

The long time-lag is precarious because the erosion of the Inuit language may be at a tipping point. Census Canada's most recent study noted that Inuit language usage in Nunavut had declined 7% from 1991-2001, most likely due to "in-migration of English-speaking individuals" and the "continued prevalence of the English language in public service jobs."5 If this trend continues, by the time the Government of Nunavut (GN) finally implements an Inuit curriculum and 85% Inuit teacher employment (two big "ifs"), targeted for 2019, the Inuit language will likely be a minority language in Nunavut, spoken by less than half the population.

How did this happen? Wasn't Nunavut supposed to be the answer to the dreams of Inuit? Yes it was. Have Inuit ever told Canada that they want their own education system? Yes, they have, repeatedly (as you'll see below). So, if Inuit have asked for their own school system, why can't they get one? And is there anything we can do to help?

These questions are the subject of the rest of this article. The next few pages will outline the Inuit battle to gain control over education and language rights, and provide a snapshot of the current state of those rights in Nunavut. Next I'll look at the exclusion of Inuit rights from the territory's "new" Education Act which enshrines language protections for a few Francophone students while denying them to the Inuit majority, and I'll cover some recommendations for how to improve things and what we in the south can do to help.

And don't be surprised if some of what you read shocks you; most southern Canadians probably won't know many of the things about Nunavut mentioned here. Many readers probably think Nunavut has an Inuit government (it doesn't: by law it has a non-ethnic public government6); or many readers might assume that Nunavut has Inuit school boards running its schools (it doesn't because the territory abolished all its school boards - except the French one - nine years ago). …

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