Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut April 02, 2014 - 8:45 am

Nunavut’s education act “perhaps overly ambitious,” Auditor General says

Bilingual education stalled by lack of qualified teachers, no standardization of Inuit language

PETER VARGA
Michael Ferguson, the Auditor General of Canada, chats with Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA George Hickes, chair of the Nunavut legislative assembly’s operations committee, during a break in hearings held April 1 on the Auditor General’s 2013 report on education in Nunavut. (PHOTO BY PETER VARGA)
Michael Ferguson, the Auditor General of Canada, chats with Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA George Hickes, chair of the Nunavut legislative assembly’s operations committee, during a break in hearings held April 1 on the Auditor General’s 2013 report on education in Nunavut. (PHOTO BY PETER VARGA)

The Government of Nunavut underestimated “the amount of time and effort required” to achieve the goals set out in the territory’s 2008 Education Act, Michael Ferguson, the Auditor General of Canada, said April 1.

The territory’s Department of Education “has a big job in front of them,” and the only sure way of hitting its goals is to stick to milestones and report on progress every step of the way, he told a Nunavut legislative committee April 1.

One key goal, to deliver bilingual education to all high school and elementary students by the 2019-2020 school year, “was perhaps overly ambitious, and some of the interim milestones can’t be met,” he said.

“But having a plan with milestones, with the department reporting on its progress in hearings — I think that’s the key to pushing this file forward.”

Ferguson and staff visited Iqaluit to describe the findings and recommendations contained in Education in Nunavut, a report they released last November following an audit of the education department.

The report said Nunavut will fall short of fulfilling its education act with the 2019-2020 timeframe, due to a lack of qualified Inuit language teachers, staff shortages, and a host of other challenges common to the territory. The report lists these as:

• housing shortages and overcrowding, with limited space for students to study or sleep;

• household food insecurity;

• the health status of Nunavummiut “which is significantly below average;” and,

• rates of substance abuse and teenage pregnancy that are higher than the rest of Canada.

One of the “critical aspects” to overcoming these obstacles and fulfilling the act “is for the department to provide good annual reporting on its performance, and whether it’s meeting its milestones,” Ferguson said.

This “will help people understand the challenges the department is facing, what it’s trying to do, and whether it’s able to do those things.”

Ferguson also recommended the territorial government review the Education Act “every five years.”

The act is now due this year to be reviewed by the territorial government. Ferguson said this is one reason his office decided the timing was right to conduct their audit.

Regular MLAs and the deputy minister of education, Kathy Okpik, agreed with Ferguson on the challenges that Nunavut’s education system faces.

Low attendance rates and lack of Inuktut-speaking staff emerged as key points of concern.

A reported attendance rate of 71.4 per cent across all schools of Nunavut for 2011-2012, measured in terms of classes attended, would amount to “three full school years” missed in a typical pupil’s education between kindergarten and the end of high school, Okpik said.

The auditor general’s report cites a similar figure.

Okpik said her department will seek to increase attendance through a “parental engagement campaign.”

This will add to initiatives that schools have started independently, she said.

“We also need involvement from the community,” Okpik said.

That will include action by local businesses, who would ban kids from their premises during school hours, she said.

Failure to introduce bilingual education in incremental steps, towards full implementation by the target school year 2019-2020 is largely due to lack of qualified teachers who can speak the Inuit language, Okpik said.

“A lot of our schools are not compliant because we did not have enough Inuktitut-speaking educators to fill that demand,” the deputy minister said.

Schools have struggled to fill positions, often recruiting Inuktitut-speakers who are not qualified teachers with “letters of authority,” she said.

MLAs wondered how such teaching jobs can be filled on a large scale if Nunavut does not have a standard dialect of the Inuit language, for use in all 25 communities.

“Since Nunavut has been created, there has been no direction [for] using a standard type of dialect within and across the government and within and across Nunavut,” Okpik said.

“I know each community is very passionate about their own dialect, but in the absence of a strong or clear direction on the type of dialect to use, we rely on the contractors that are out there and the types of dialects they use,” she said, referring to book publishers and producers of educational material.

“I think it would be much easier for the Department of Education if we said ‘this is a standard dialect that we’re going to use.’”

Okpik said educational gaps in many communities are due to their lack of qualified Inuktut-speaking teachers.

MLAs wondered if there were any good reasons why class attendance in Nunavut is so low.

Simeon Mikkungwak of Baker Lake and Isaac Shooyook, MLA for Quttiktut, wondered if it could be due to seasonal employment and hunting activities.

Pat Angnakak of Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu pointed out that attendance did not seem as high in the 1990s and prior decades.

Okpik agreed that a shift had taken place in attendance rates over the past 15 or more years. She said increases in the number of young parents could also be a cause.

“I don’t thing there’s one single factor,” Okpik said. “There are a lot of factors that play into this.”

The hearing on the Auditor General’s 2013 report on Education in Nunavut continues April 2.

The standing committee will also conduct a hearing on the Auditor General’s report on Safety of Schools and Childcare Facilities in Nunavut on April 3.

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