October 11, 2002

What does Nunavut's language commissioner do?

Everyone must work to protect Inuktitut, Eva Aariak says


Nunavut's language watchdog, Eva Aariak, says Inuktitut is strong, but more work is needed to protect it.


Eva Aariak, Nunavut's language commissioner, performs an important job on behalf of Nunavummiut - she ensures that the Official Languages Act is followed.

For example, if Aariak receives a notice complaining that a person has received a letter from the Government of Nunavut only in English, then her office would investigate that complaint.

Whether the complaint is from a French person or an Inuk person, her office would investigate whether or not the official languages are all being used.

As part of the work that the language commissioner does, she acts as an ombudsman, or watchdog, to ensure there are enough services provided in Inuktitut, Inuinaqtun, French or English - all languages that the government of Nunavut uses.

Another responsibility is to look at how the language of Inuktitut is being protected and used commercially.

"First of all let me say that our language is very strong. We have good phonetics in Inuktitut," Aariak says.

"We have no problems in terminology as it relates to traditional living. We come across problems when it's modern, such as microwaves and other [terms] that relate to office work. Although they have English names, sometimes they don't always have Inuktitut names for them.

"This is what the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth (CLEY) did back in the autumn of 2001. They held a terminology development workshop so that words in English without Inuktitut names would be assigned a new word for them."

Aariak says she has made recommendations to members of the legislative assembly requesting that a board or a committee be created to look after terminology development.

This terminology body would be recognized, and become part of everyday life.

They would inform news organizations and promote use of the newly created words.

The work of the board or committee would have to be approved and supported by the government. There would be an elder on the board or committee who would act as a consultant on the correctness of word usage.

"The local dialects would not be affected," Aariak says. "For example, we know when a person from Sanikiluaq is speaking. And we know when someone else is speaking from another community. Although we understand each other perfectly, there are words that are always slightly different from one community to another."

She said terminology should be taught in all Nunavut schools, especially for newly created Inuktitut words. Once it is taught in the communities, then there would be consistency of use across the territory.

It's very important that a Nunavut language authority or a commission be created, Aariak said.

There was a language conference held back in 1997, just before the Nunavut territory was created. The conference recommended as well that a Nunavut language commission be created.

Different places such as Greenland, Quebec and other minority groups all have language commissions. This is what we need in Nunavut, Aariak said.

She says it's the Nunavut government that has to start the process moving by approving such recommendations. Aariak says in Inuktitut, "it's in their hands now," as she made a literal interpretation of her statement.

Language work in the territory is at different levels in different communities, but progress is too slow, Aariak says.

For example, she says there is not enough Inuktitut language instruction in the higher school grades.

It is CLEY's responsibility that all cultural or language instruction is happening, that cultural values are protected and that the language of Inuktitut is preserved, Aariak says.

"I believe too that the different Inuit organizations should be promoting pride, language and the uniqueness of Inuit. I think that they could do more work in terms of pride in our language, because that is who we are as Nunavummiut," she says.

For example, if the government, Inuit organizations, the hamlets, the schools, and people themselves worked together on language issues there would be incredible progress made, she says.

It is up to the people in the communities who are part of education boards to promote the Inuktitut language, she says, and they have to push for programs, and be a bit more aggressive when it comes to pride in their language.

Aariak says, for example, that she has never seen recommendations from the community school boards pushing for more language instruction since she has started work as a languages commissioner.

She says too that she has seen young people who are eager to learn Inuktitut, but there are no Inuktitut instructors to teach them.

Aariak says Nunavut Arctic College must teach more Inuktitut and recruit more people to take the teacher education program.

She also says we need more Inuktitut writers who will entertain us during long plane rides and for people to read before going to sleep.

"People say that there's lots of stories out there that have to be recorded before the elders pass away. I encourage them to write them down," Aariak says.

"As individuals, it is also up to us to preserve and use our language. If we feel strongly enough about our culture then we will do our part to protect the culture, the language and pride in our people."

As for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference wanting to create another writing system that circumpolar governments could use, Aariak reassures people that our current writing system will not be changed right away, and that what ICC is proposing is way ahead in the future.

"We'll need to look at something concrete so that we'll understand better what the circumpolar region is currently thinking about," she says.