Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

From Cultural Deprivation to Individual Deficits: A Genealogy of Deficiency in Inuit Adult Education

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

From Cultural Deprivation to Individual Deficits: A Genealogy of Deficiency in Inuit Adult Education

Article excerpt


Over the past century, the engagement of the Canadian state in Inuit education has changed dramatically. In 1919, the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Duncan Scott, succinctly expressed the official disinterest of the Canadian government in the education of its most northerly citizens: "As yet no very large financial aid has been allocated for the education of the Eskimos. The establishment of schools has been left to those interested in the evangelization of the people" (Public Archives of Canada, RG 85, v. 1130, f. 254-1, pt. 1). In contrast, by 2016 the Department of Education of the Government of Nunavut had expressed the following ambitious goal as part of its vision statement:

We aim for our high school graduation rates to be on par with the rest of Canada and for the majority of Nunavut youth to graduate from high school, college or university, and with the same level of skills, knowledge and abilities as graduates from anywhere in Canada. (

Within the history of Inuit education, this article focuses upon the evolution of official discourses about the education of Inuit adults. I employ genealogical methods (Foucault, 1980, 1984) to interpret archival data, exploring how representatives of Canadian governments thought about the education of Inuit adults from the 1940s through the 1980s.

While the empirical focus of this article is restricted to a particular time and place, its scholarly and political implications should be of interest to those engaged in the study or practice of adult education far beyond the Arctic. My genealogy reveals three key stages in the evolution of official discourses: exclusion (adult education as irrelevant for Inuit); cultural deprivation (adult education as a means for Inuit to overcome their collective deficiencies and thrive in the modern world); and the individualization of inadequacy (adult education as a means to meet the inherent learning needs of modern individuals). These stages are consistent with the evolution of discourses deployed in connection with adult education programs targeting a range of marginalized populations. Collective notions of deficiency were used to legitimate adult education activities in initiatives as diverse as those of the Harlem Renaissance and the Workers' Educational Association. Individualized notions of deficiency have been influential in recent decades, legitimating various forms of adult education, including those relating to literacy and vocational training. Assumptions about the inadequacies of learners constitute some of the most politically and pedagogically challenging aspects of adult education.

In this article, I construct a detailed, historical account of the deployment and evolution of deficiency discourses. The next section of the article locates my study of Inuit adult education within a much broader history of the use of claims regarding collective and individual inadequacies to justify and orient adult education programs. Following this literature review, I describe my research methods--both in terms of my data collection strategies, and in terms of my analytical approach. To set this study in an empirical context, I then outline the historical evolution of Euro-Canadian colonization of the Inuit, with an emphasis on the evolution of adult educational structures and institutions. The main body of the article presents a history of the discourses through which representatives of Canadian governments conceptualized the education of Inuit adults. To demonstrate that the history of official discourses concerning Inuit adult education in Canada was not a teleological unfolding of truth, but rather a contested and political process, I introduce various criticisms of official discourses, and explain the political-economic and strategic variables that shaped the work of state representatives. In the conclusion, I argue that this article both contributes to the history of Inuit education in Canada (McGregor, 2013), and offers important insight for understanding and contesting the deployment of deficiency discourses in the education of adults from other, marginalized backgrounds. …

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