Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut March 22, 2017 - 4:00 pm

Nunavut grad student pushes higher learning, Inuit culture in the big city

"No matter how old you are, you can still get educated"

SARAH ROGERS
Raigelee Alorut, a masters student at the University of Toronto, teaches a weekly Inuktitut class at the university as part of her practicum. Alorut teaches Inuktitut using syllabics, which is considered rare outside the North. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)
Raigelee Alorut, a masters student at the University of Toronto, teaches a weekly Inuktitut class at the university as part of her practicum. Alorut teaches Inuktitut using syllabics, which is considered rare outside the North. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)
Alorut with her daughter Jen, who often stops into the Tuesday morning Inuktitut classes University of Toronto's First Nations House. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)
Alorut with her daughter Jen, who often stops into the Tuesday morning Inuktitut classes University of Toronto's First Nations House. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)

TORONTO— Sila qanuippaa?

“How’s the weather?”

It’s as Canadian as small talk gets, as a group of students discuss the weather using their limited Inuktitut vocabulary.

The conversation veers toward nillasuktuq, or cold weather, in Nunavut. “Piqsiqtuq,” says instructor Raigelee Alorut, asking her students to repeat the phrase. “There’s a blizzard.”

The students have a lot of questions for Alorut that aren’t quite related to language: how do people stay warm in blizzards and Arctic temperatures?

The conversation shifts again, this time to animal skins and fur.

Alorut has lived for about 14 years in Toronto, where she finds herself an advocate for Inuit language and culture in a city where she doesn’t see or hear much of it.

In the process, the 52-year-old teacher and now Master of Education student has become a champion for higher learning, through leading by example.

Alorut is originally from Iqaluit where she raised her family and worked as a language specialist at Apex’s Nanook school for many years.

Alorut was visiting her siblings, who lived in Toronto in 2000, when she and her husband decided to make the move south. She liked being close to family and wanted her son and daughter, 12 and 16 years old, to get access to better post-secondary education.

“We decided to stay,” she said. “And that was the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

It turns out Alorut faced an even tougher decision soon after relocating to the Canada’s largest city: she decided, at age 40, to enroll in university.

Alorut was scared to begin with; she had only completed some high school and that was decades ago. She was nervous about being the oldest person in her classes and worried she wouldn’t remember how to write an essay.

In 2011, she graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in Aboriginal Studies and Caribbean studies (Caribbean and Indigenous peoples, she discovered, share a similarly painful colonial history).

Today, Alorut is enrolled in the MEd program at University of Toronto in community and development. She’s half-way through the two-year program.

As part of her practicum, Alorut chose to teach her own language and culture, offering free Inuktitut classes out of the university’s First Nations house every Tuesday during this semester.

The class is made up of a linguistics professor, linguistics students and other University of Toronto students, keen to learn the language.

“I prefer teaching syllabics, it’s easier,” Alorut said. “It’s not really taught anywhere in the South, that I know of—not for Inuktitut, anyway.”

During the first class, Alorut introduced students to syllabics and how to pronounce each character. Now, most students could comfortably read short phrases which she writes out on the chalkboard.

“I told them they’re learning just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “I’m just picking out friendly conversation and small talk.”

Alorut will be faced with a new decision soon: what to do once she completes her masters program in 2018.

She’s considered moving back home to Iqaluit, where she’d be in high demand within Nunavut’s education system.

In the meantime, Alorut uses her success to push other Inuit into pursuing higher learning.

“I’ve always encouraged adults learners in Nunavut to go back to school,” she said. “I’m trying to educate one person at a time.”

Alorut said she recently gave an interview to CBC’s Iqalaaq news program to talk about her studies. She later got a call from her daughter Sylvia, who lives in Iqaluit; her daughter said a friend had seen Alorut on television and decided to enroll in a post-secondary program.

“It can be scary at first,” Alorut said. “But no matter how old you are, you can still get educated.”

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