Inuit Discourse and Identity after the Advent of Nunavut
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This report outlines the principal findings of a research project on Inuit discourse and identity since the advent of Nunavut, undertaken conjointly by Université Laval’s CIÉRA and Nunavut Arctic College’s (Nunatta Campus) Inuit Language and Culture Programs, thanks to Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) funds. The project was under the direction of Prof. Louis-Jacques Dorais (Université Laval) and Dr. Susan Sammons (Nunavut Arctic College). The present report is based for a large part on an analysis of interview data undertaken in 2004-05 by Vincent Collette. These 35 interviews with Inuit residents aged between 18 and 85 had been conducted in 2003-04 in Iqaluit by Nunavut Arctic College students and staff. May all researchers, interviewers and interviewees be sincerely thanked here. Our interview respondents answer in two ways. They are sometimes realistic, trying to describe the language situation as they perceive it. In such cases, they generally tell about English being increasingly used in Iqaluit homes and workplaces, because people find it more practical than Inuktitut for expressing current activities and interests within a modern Inuit community, and this even if the native language is valued as a tool for uniting all Aboriginal community members. On the other hand, respondents may answer in a more idealistic way, stating what they would wish to see in the future: Inuktitut being transmitted to younger generations and continuing to thrive in the North. This second type of response reveals a lot about Inuit identity. Inuit are proud of being Inuit, proud of having been able to establish their own government in Nunavut, and Inuktitut acts as a powerful symbol of that pride, even if its use may be declining. The research outlines the predominance of English in Iqaluit, which is due to the fact that: 1) English is most often required when one is searching for a job; 2) it is the principal vehicle of popular culture (television, music, etc.); 3) contacts with Qallunaat occur in English. But Inuktitut is starting to make itself a place. This is due for a good part to the fact that it has become more visible and politically important since the creation of Nunavut, and that its market value has augmented in consequence. Moreover, it is also valued as the most fitting language for expressing oneself in informal contexts and for symbolising the fact that one is an Inuk. The establishment of Nunavut thus has a nation-building effect. The linguistic and cultural policies proposed by the Government of Nunavut contribute to transforming Inuktitut and Inuit culture into emblems of the specificity of the Inuit people within Canada and, hence, of their innate right to govern their own territory. Despite its increasing symbolic and political value, Inuktitut seems to be in decline in Iqaluit homes. Testimonies and observation show that English and code-switching are increasingly used by younger speakers. Parents say that they are conscious about the need to address their children in Inuktitut in order to transmit the language which, they feel, is an important task identity-wise. But in reality, it appears that a majority of younger parents speak English to their kids or mix both languages. And even when they address them in Inuktitut, the children generally answer in English. This may change when the kids become teenagers, some of them then becoming aware that Inuktitut contributes defining their ethnic specificity. But this revitalisation might be impaired by the intransigent attitude of several older speakers, who promote an ideology of linguistic purity and criticise teenagers and young adults because they do not speak “proper Inuktitut.” Such an attitude can be detrimental to language preservation. After all, it may be better to speak a simplified version of Inuktitut than no Inuktitut at all. What actually happens, as shown by our interviews and observations, is that when bilingual speakers want to communicate, it is important for them to be sure that they are understood. Proper comprehension predominates over ethnic promotion and questions of identity. In a context where speakers under 40-45 years of age have been partly or entirely schooled in English by Qallunaat teachers, and where the predominant popular culture is anglophone, the words and meanings most individuals have at their command for expressing contemporary life in a modern community are English, because English is the language in which they were first learned. This explains why despite their wish to transmit and promote Inuktitut, and their sincere assertion that the Aboriginal language is essential to Inuit identity, many speakers find it easier to express themselves in English or in a mixed code when they have to speak about topics other than common feelings, basic assertions or subsistence activities. They simply do not possess the required cognitive and linguistic tools to communicate fully in Inuktitut, because they were never taught them. This means that the key to the survival and flourishing of Inuktitut is education. Our respondents are conscious about that. All of them say that they would like Inuktitut to be taught up to Grade 12. And they are right. If the present situation continues, the language not being taught beyond Grades 3 or 4, it will never be possible, in the opinion of this author, to give Inuktitut its proper place in Nunavut. It will, for sure, continue to be spoken for some decades, at least outside of Iqaluit, but its use risks being increasingly limited to petty topics, on the one hand, and highly symbolic domains (traditional life, political discourse, religious ceremonies) on the other. It will never become Nunavut’s principal working language.