Breathing the Inuit language down under
“Uncle Bob” from Australia promotes Inuktitut learning
David Joanasie uprooted his life so his children could speak Inuktitut.
“I was living down south with my wife, I got a daughter, and she started to go to daycare,” Joanasie said. He noticed his daughter, Cynthia, was speaking more English than their home-spoken Inuktitut.
“It was something important to me to pass on Inuktitut before she went on to preschool or kindergarten. So I said, we’re going to move back, and I want my children to speak Inuktitut,” Joanasie said.
He says it’s a part of his Inuit identity to speak the language.
“Somebody put it this way: It should be like breathing. Like every day breathing.”
So the Joanasies moved up to Iqaluit, his daughter attended Tumikuluit Saipaaqivik daycare, and he found a job at the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and became a media relations advisor.
And that’s how he encountered an eccentric Australian man with an Aussie-Inuktitut accent by the name of Bob Carveth — or, as five-year-old Cynthia now calls him, Uncle Bob.
Bob Carveth is a 70-year-old Australian whose love affair with languages eventually led him to making a career out of it by teaching English as a second language to children in places like New Guinea.
But Carveth’s interest in Inuktitut came later in life after he was moved by the Norfolk Island people of Melanesia and their endangered language.
This led to Carveth stumbling upon the Inuit language. He was fascinated by the changes that Inuit have made to preserve Inuktitut.
Then he started comparing Inuit to Aboriginal people in Australia.
“I’ve seen the destruction of so many languages here in Australia,” says Carveth.
“Schools that had Aboriginal children were excelling past the European children up until about the age of 11, and then they started in this cross-over [to English schools], where they started falling behind,” says Carveth.
The same thing’s happening in Nunavut and Nunavik, and a need for bilingual education throughout the Nunavut curriculum is a must, Carveth said.
Currently, under the Inuit Language Protection Act, every Inuit child has the right to education in Inuktitut.
The Nunavut Education Act supports the ILPA by having elders factor Inuit Qaujimajaqutangit into the curriculum, and by supporting 11 teacher education programs taught at Nunavut Arctic College, and other initiatives.
However, more emphasis was put on educating younger children in Inuktitut in the past, and older kids have been falling behind in Inuktitut education.
“Most graduates from the teacher education program since 1969 have focused more on teaching in primary grades, so kindergarten to Grade 6,” says the director of curriculum and school services for the Government of Nunavut, Cathy McGregor.
“It doesn’t mean that there are no teachers working at Grades 7 to 12. It just means we haven’t had a specific program to teach course work in those grade levels in the past,” she said.
English has been creeping into Nunavut and Nunavik since Europeans arrived, and because early schools prohibited the use of the Inuktitut language.
Now, UNESCO describes the different forms of Inuktitut as “vulnerable.”
But things are turning around, McGregor said.
“We’re producing materials as fast as we can for different grade levels, different subject areas, and trying to do them bilingually,” McGregor said.
The goal of the GN’s Department of Education is to graduate high school students who are completely bilingual by 2019.
New Grade 7 to Grade 9 teacher education programs have been implemented, and Grade 10 to Grade 12 programs will follow.
“Inuktitut is one of three Aboriginal languages in Canada that has any potential for surviving past the next 20 years,” says McGregor.
“On the other hand, you can see how English encroaches on Inuktitut. So definitely that’s why we’re putting a lot of time and effort and money into supporting bilingual education.”
Although English is still seeping into Nunavut’s culture as the north becomes more developed — more so in Iqaluit than smaller Nunavut communities — Carveth suggests there’s no reason why the two can’t co-exist.
“Go to Europe. You can talk to a Finn, you can talk to a German, you can talk to a Swede, and they all speak English. But that’s not at the cost of their own language,” he said.
So, halfway across the world, and having never stepped foot in Canada before, Carveth decided he would make a difference.
He got in contact with Inuit groups like Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and QIA, where he met Joanasie, and was passed on to schools around the territory.
He had an idea. Often kids from middle school to high school go off on land trips to study traditional geographical teachings from elders, who use only Inuktitut throughout the trip.
Being a former photographer, Carveth’s idea was to put cameras in the hands of children, and encourage them to do roving reporter assignments in Inuktitut, so they can come back to the classroom and share the elders’ traditional use of the language with the class.
So, the Australian sent new digital cameras, about $100 each, to communities like Chesterfield Inlet and Kimmirut. And he sent flashlights to Kitiqlit Middle School in Arviat to help them see in the dark during camping trips.
“That’s what good people do. Bob is one of those really supportive people in the north,” says Billy Ukutak, who’s been a counsellor at Kitiqlit for more than 32 years.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes. I’ve seen everything,” says Ukutak. “We all thought it was done. Our language was finished, and everyone talks English.”
“To lose the language, I don’t think I would consider myself an Inuk. Because that’s who I am,” says Ukutak, who praised the work of McGregor for helping save the Inuit language.
Carveth also sent remote-control robots, binoculars, flashlights, MP3 players, and other prizes to Ulluriaq School in Kangiqsulujjuaq for those who took a shine to the language, and gave a $500 prize away to a student in Cambridge Bay who won a video contest themed around the importance of Inuktitut.
How does Carveth pay for the gifts?
“I’m on a pension, I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink, and I don’t go on holidays. And I don’t go to restaurants, and I don’t read magazines anymore because I do all my reading on the Internet.
“I just use my little bit of extra and keep pouring it in over there,” Carveth said, adding that he worked as a builder’s labourer until a few months ago, when he was forced to stop because of a heart condition.
“What I’m doing is the Australian way. We like to help people out.”
He even sent Christmas presents to Joanasie’s two children after building a strong relationship with him through emails and phone calls.
“They were asking, ‘where are these from?’ I ended up telling them they were from their Uncle Bob in Australia,” Joanasie said.
“That’s the Inuit culture, we’re so inclusive. If I just said Bob from Australia, they wouldn’t know who I was talking about. But if I say uncle — there’s a special relationship to it.”
Sometimes Joanasie and Carveth speak in Inuktitut. Carveth learned the language by himself, although Joanasie jokes that he does have an Inuktitut-Australian accent.
“He still needs help with pronunciations,” said Joanasie, laughing.
Carveth says he’s still scouting the North for the next school to help, and he might just get that opportunity to keep breathing the language, while keeping the language breathing.