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Federal agencies in Nunavut not following the rules, says languages commissioner

Nunavut’s languages commissioner says the federal government isn’t doing enough to make sure services in the territory are available in Inuktut.

Speaking sometimes in Inuktitut through a translator and sometimes in English, Karliin Aariak told a federal committee Monday that her office continues to receive complaints from Nunavummiut who haven’t been able to access services in the territory in their primary language.

“Evidently, the fact that I’m still receiving concerns … [means] the language rights obligations are not being met by the federal government specifically,” Aariak said.

Aariak was one of several people who spoke to the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs, which is doing a study of Indigenous language needs.

Two women behind name plates at desks.
Kitty Gordon of Makivik Corp. and Karliin Aariak, languages commissioner of Nunavut, spoke to the standing committee on Indigenous Affairs in Ottawa Monday. (CBC)

Aariak said her office has found federal agencies, departments and institutions haven’t been responsive to complaints, and there aren’t any tools to make them comply with language rules.

“This is especially concerning because federal agencies, departments and institutions in Nunavut are accountable for the lack of Inuktut in their oral communications, public signs, posters, reception and client services,” she said.

Inuktut encompasses all dialects including Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.

Aariak recommended a memorandum of understanding with federal agencies, departments and institutions in Nunavut to help improve communication on language issues and help resolve concerns.

She also recommended the Privy Council or another federal department be in charge of implementing recommendations around language issues across the country, so there’s someone who can be held accountable; and that a deadline be set for federal organizations to respond to her recommendations.

“Federal agencies, departments and institutions have a legal and moral obligation to comply with Nunavut’s legislation,” she said.

Language legislation

Two pieces of territorial legislation set out rules for Inuktut in Nunavut: the Official Languages Act and the Inuit Language Protection Act.

The Official Languages Act defines Inuktut, English and French as Nunavut’s official languages. Under that act, territorial departments and agencies have to serve the public in all official languages.

That’s not legislation the federal government or private-sector organizations have to comply with, Aariak said — and that’s where the Inuit Language Protection Act comes in.

“[It] was designed specifically to counter, among other things, the negative effects of colonization,” she noted.

She also pointed to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, also known as UNDRIP, which the federal government has passed legislation in favour of.

She said there was no Inuktut on posters and ballots in Nunavut during the last federal election, something her office had received concerns about in previous elections as well. She said she’s also had complaints about health information, such as masking requirements, being made available only in English.

Nunavut NDP MP Lori Idlout, who sits on the committee, has in the past called for Indigenous languages to appear on federal election ballots.

Federal agencies in Nunavut not following the rules, says languages commissioner
NDP MP Lori Idlout rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 16, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Speaking in Inuktitut, Idlout said she was happy to see two people — Aariak and Kitty Gordon of Makivik Corp. — address the committee in Inuktitut.

“We are so blessed, because our language is precious to us. And we have to keep reiterating how precious our language is and how important it is to who we are, and to our culture,” she said.

“When others begin to understand how precious our language is, then they will be more encouraged, more inspired to keep giving us support in areas where we need it.”

Idlout questioned whether existing legislation is enough, and asked how much more funding is needed for Indigenous peoples to implement language programs.

“We have been told over and over again that there is limited funding,” she said.

Aariak said she couldn’t give a specific number for how much money is needed, but pointed to extra remunerations federal employees get for speaking French. Something similar could exist for Indigenous languages, she suggested — a point Idlout has also raised in the past.

Closing the language gap

The committee also heard from several other people, including Ed Schultz, the governance director of Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation in the Yukon.

Federal agencies in Nunavut not following the rules, says languages commissioner
Ed Schultz, the governance director for Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, says there’s a gap between fluent language speakers and youths that needs to be addressed. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Schultz said there’s a generational gap between people who speak Indigenous languages in the community he represents. He said he’d like to see funding for Indigenous language programming at a local level to help narrow that gap

“We’re trying to reverse a trend that’s well over 100 years old, where the colonial system spent billions of dollars to kind of get the language out of our people,” he said.

“We are saying, in the spirit of reconciliation today, that as much of an effort should be brought forward to help us reintroduce it, or sustain it while it’s still alive.”

He called for long-term, sustainable funding to help revitalize Indigenous languages.

The committee has at least two more meetings scheduled on this topic in the coming weeks.

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