Alexia Galloway-Alainga pushes in a pair of earbuds to tune out the clatter of cutlery and coffee cups hitting cafeteria tables at Ottawa’s Carleton University. She looks straight into her smartphone camera, wearing a slight smile, and begins speaking: Sanngijuq, she says slowly, the last syllable coming from the back of her throat. The Inuktitut phrase means “he/she is strong.” Pijunnarniq, she continues, translating as she goes—“to be able.” Then Galloway-Alainga uploads the video to her Instagram feed.
The 20-year-old Inuk woman follows the social media feeds of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) based in her hometown of Iqaluit. A few times a week, the QIA posts Inuktitut words and phrases on Facebook and Twitter, so people can learn as they go. Galloway-Alainga’s followers comment under her posts, offering advice and encouragement. Qinuisaarniq means patience, she reads in another post. “Qinui-saa-rniq,” offers one follower. “Long A sound and not the N. Keep it up!!”
Moving to Ottawa from Nunavut invoked a desire to speak Inuktitut—a language Galloway-Alainga grew up with but never spoke fluently. Many of her Inuit relatives do. “So I find it very important to try and learn just so I can communicate with them,” she says.
While English remains a broadly used means of communication across Nunavut, the inability to speak Inuktitut poses a hurdle for youth like Galloway-Alainga, who equate those language skills with success and well-being in their homeland. The social work student aspires to work in territorial or Indigenous politics. But she also wonders, “Am I Inuk enough?”
Galloway-Alainga has seen other Inuit grapple with the same question. On September 17, 2015, Labrador-raised, Iqaluit-based, and not-quite-bilingual Natan Obed ran to serve as president of Canada’s national Inuit association, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK). He went on to win the election, but not before his language and identity were scrutinized by other Inuit leaders.
“There are ancient words given to us to live by,” Cathy Towtongie, president of Nunavut’s land claim organization, told Obed that day in 2015. “What do you recall in your Inuit identity that you have not lost while you went through the western education system?”
“I recognize that not being fluent in Inuktitut is a liability,” Obed responded, noting he has a strong skill set to make up for it, including his experience in Indigenous governance and socioeconomic development. “What most people who don’t have the language struggle with is that they’re not as Inuk as those who speak the language,” Obed told the board members. “The fact that I don’t have Inuktitut is only one small part of who I am.”
In fact, Obed’s fluency in Inuktitut—or lack thereof—tells a much larger story about Inuit in Canada. The legacy of Canada’s residential school system is one of loss—children were sent away from their communities with a goal to withdraw them from their “savage” surroundings, as former prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald once described it. In that sense, Inuit, living in isolated, northern regions, were able to safeguard many parts of that culture. Obed’s family wasn’t so fortunate: His father spent many years of his youth in a residential school where he lost most of his language. In turn, he never spoke Inuktitut to his children.
Still, Inuktut, a term that encompasses all the country’s Inuit dialects, remains the second most spoken Indigenous language among Canada’s Indigenous groups, only after Algonquian languages. Sixty-four percent of Inuit say they can carry a conversation in their mother tongue, and that percentage is much higher in parts of Nunavut and the Nunavik region of northern Quebec.
It’s a point of pride among Inuit. But it also places undue pressure on those who haven’t mastered the language. It challenges Inuit identity and divides communities, in a time when Indigenous language reclamation is synonymous with reconciliation.
Inuit identity isn’t just questioned in the North; it extends to many urban centres, where Inuit communities are small but tightly knit. Ottawa is often considered the unofficial southern capital of Nunavut, with an estimated population of 2,500 Inuit, and is home to a number of Inuit organizations and services. Lynda Brown is the manager of youth programming at one of them, the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre, which offers culturally relevant child care and community programs. She’s called Ottawa home most of her life; she was born in Iqaluit to an Inuk mom and white dad, though her family moved south to Edmonton when she was six. Her mom wanted to make sure her children’s English was strong, so she stopped speaking Inuktitut at home. Brown didn’t think much of it until her mid-20s.
“I remember when I first started learning [Inuktitut] and some people not being so encouraging with my pronunciation,” Brown recalls. It was the late 1990s, and Brown was working the reception desk at Tungasuvvingat Inuit, a centre for Inuit-focused health and cultural services. She answered a phone call from an elder, who was speaking Inuktitut. When Brown responded in English, she said the woman went on a tirade about not getting served in her first language. “Why are there qallunaat working there?” the woman demanded, using an Inuit term to describe white people. “Well actually, I’m Inuk,” Brown replied, and broke into tears. The incident turned her off Inuktitut for a period. When she decided to give it another try, she opted to learn Inuktitut through song at the early childhood program where she worked. Singing masked her accent, and she was encouraged by the children’s voices accompanying hers. Brown spent years learning to work her tongue around the song called “Quviasuliqpunga,” or “I Will Be Happy,” until an Inuktitut-speaking co-worker congratulated her on how much her pronunciation had improved.
Even for those who are willing and able to learn, Inuktitut-language training and courses aren’t always accessible. It varies across the Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit regions of Canada. In the best-case scenario, classes are taught in Inuktitut from kindergarten until Grade 3, as is the case in Nunavik and roughly half the communities in Nunavut. But try as it may, the Government of Nunavut hasn’t been able to increase the presence of Inuktut in its schools since the Inuit territory was created in 1999.
That concerns Ian Martin, an associate professor in the Department of English at York University’s Glendon College who’s studied language in the territory since its inception. The use of Inuktut in Nunavut homes dropped from 76 percent in 1996 to only 61 percent in 2011. If current trends hold, he predicts that Inuktut will be spoken by just four percent of Inuit in Nunavut by 2051. He’s further incensed by amendments made last year to the territory’s Education Act, which had proposed delaying plans to introduce bilingual English-Inuktut education up until Grade 9—a goal the government once set for 2020 and has now pushed to 2030. “If we can’t use the school system as a place where language is strong… why bother having a Nunavut?” he asks.
Language instruction options aren’t much greater for adult learners, but they exist. Following the creation of Nunavut, educator Leena Evic founded Pirurvik Centre, an Iqaluit-based centre for Inuit language, culture, and well-being. The centre’s first language students were non-Inuit government officials contracted to take the class, but Evic gradually saw the need to develop a program for Inuit who wanted to learn Inuktitut as a second language. That required a re-think of how the language was taught; even Inuit who speak only a handful of words in Inuktitut tend to be familiar with certain elements of the language that newcomers are not.
“Inuit already have our own way of teaching and learning. We try to come from that perspective,” Evic explains. “If I’m taught to make an amautik—a traditional Inuit woman’s parka with a wide hood used for carrying babies—my teacher won’t start with little pieces. She’ll show me the whole product first and that’s how I start learning.” The course uses the tupiq, or “tent,” as a metaphor: Attavik is the beginners’ level, where you look for the best ground to pitch a tent, and then kajusivik ensures the learning builds on a strong foundation. Naarivik, the course’s advanced level, takes on cultural issues and traditional knowledge, imparting what Evic calls “authentic vocabulary.”
Teaching Inuktitut as a second language to Inuit is still a relatively new concept. But Evic, who’s counted Obed among her students, says the program is helping address the rapid level of Inuktut loss in Nunavut. “We must always take into account how our language looks 20 years from now, what state it is in—in that time. And because it is at stake presently, we need to ensure we address its importance right now. All Inuit should be given the opportunity to continue to learn in their own language formally.”
That, however, will require a greater commitment on the part of the federal government, whose funding dedicated to the instruction and promotion of Indigenous languages pales in comparison to how it funds its two official languages, English and French. (Inuktut is an official language of Nunavut, though only at a territorial level.) The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report notes that Canada spends about $14 million each year for the preservation and revitalization of the country’s 90 Indigenous languages, compared to the $348 million earmarked for official minority language communities. In its most recent federal budget, the Trudeau government has committed more money to Indigenous languages—$89 million over three years, money meant to help implement an Indigenous Languages Act his government has yet to produce.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami has taken a more Inuit-focused lead on language revitalization; the national organization oversees Atausiq Inuktut Titirausiq, a group exploring a unified writing system for Inuktut. While a number of Inuit regions favour the use of syllabics, a writing system developed by English missionaries in the late 19th century, the group has recommended a shift to Roman orthography for all written Inuktut. The proposed changes have created conflict in certain regions, where Inuit worry those changes will erase the unique character of regional dialects. But proponents of a universal writing system, like Brown, believe it will help preserve Inuit language in the long term by creating standardized learning materials across the Inuit Nunangat. The process makes her optimistic that the Inuit language will flourish throughout the lifetime of her Ottawa-raised children and, she hopes, into her future grandchildren’s generation.
For many years, Brown used the expression Qanuippit? when she greeted other Inuit. “How are you?” she thought she was asking. An elder finally explained to her that the expression directly translates to English as: “Are you feeling better after being sick?” It was adapted as the common western greeting, typically asked without much concern for an honest response. There’s no such greeting in Inuit culture, Brown learned: “Inuit just smile at each other instead.” But that’s besides the point; Brown thinks the many Inuit who’ve responded “I’m fine” to her question over the years are part of a supportive network of Inuktut speakers who have made it possible for her language skills to grow.
“For those who are trying—keep trying. You’re going to make mistakes,” Brown says. “No one picks up anything with the snap of a finger. And for those who speak the language and hear people who are learning, be really conscious about how you correct them. Because how you correct them can either empower them to go further or impede them. If I listened to that first lady who made me cry on the phone, I wouldn’t have learned any more.”
More than two years into his leadership at ITK, Obed has pushed Inuit to move beyond what he calls a “hurtful and divisive debate” over language and identity, and instead focus that energy on building stronger, healthier Inuit communities and regions. “There are so many things that bind us,” he says in an interview from his Ottawa office. “No matter who you talk to, all Inuit want culture and language, we want to be able to express ourselves in our language.”
A scroll through Facebook or Twitter in November would have brought many Nunavummiut to the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s latest Word of the Day: katimmajuuk, which means “together,” illustrated by a Saimaiyu Akesuk print of two geese with necks intertwined. It seems to drive Obed’s point home. But for many Inuit, language learning will be a lifelong endeavour. Since we first chatted last spring, Galloway-Alainga hasn’t kept up her own Inuktitut Instagram feed, though she gets a chance to practise the language on her visits home over the holidays. In Iqaluit, her grandmother has adopted a baby who is being raised in Inuktitut, and she hopes to be able to converse with the child on her visits North. “I want to be part of the generation that keeps our culture and keeps our language alive, because that’s very important to who we are as Inuit,” she says. “That’s very important to Nunavut.”