Nunavut teens grill education minister during mock parliament

“I myself can barely speak or understand Inuktitut”

Dustin Pewatualuk of Pond Inlet serves as Speaker at a mock parliament for youth held Nov. 22 at the Nunavut legislative chamber in Iqaluit. (PHOTO BY BETH BROWN)

By BETH BROWN

Nunavut high school students don’t get enough Inuktut-language education, participants in a youth parliament told Education Minister David Joanasie last week.

“I myself can barely speak or understand Inuktitut,” said Janette Seeteenak of Baker Lake.

She’s one of 22 high school students from around Nunavut who played the part of MLAs last Thursday, Nov. 22, for a one-day mock sitting held at the Nunavut legislature.

“It makes me feel detached from my culture,” said Seeteenak, adding that as she progressed into higher grades, the Inuktut-based curriculum at her school became “repetitive and dull.”

The students who participated in the youth parliamentary sitting weren’t shy about delving into areas like housing, foster care, elder care, Arctic sovereignty, polar bear quotas, and mental health and addictions treatment.

But Inuktut emerged as a big theme.

The young politicians spent the week leading up to the televised gathering by preparing ministers’ statements and members’ statements, with help from legislative assembly staff.

In a mock committee of the whole meeting that followed the youth parliament’s oral question period, each student also prepared a question to ask Education Minister David Joanasie.

Almost every one asked Joanasie about what his government will do to ensure their generation and those who follow can speak and work in Inuktut.

“Can the government provide bilingual education from kindergarten to Grade 12?” said Sarah Sagiaktuk, the youth MLA for South Baffin.

As the youth minister for the Department of Culture and Heritage, Sagiaktuk had said her department would create educational apps for Inuktut-language education, along with other computer-based teaching tools.

Sarah Sagiaktuk of Kimmirut, who played the part of minister of education during a youth parliament held in the Nunavut legislature, tells participants that she would make Inuktut language education a priority in schools. (PHOTO BY BETH BROWN)

But the short answer to Sagiaktuk’s question was: no.

The Nunavut government is working to develop and roll out Inuktut instruction at all grade levels, but right now schools in Nunavut struggle to offer Inuktut instruction in senior grades, if at all.

Joanasie explained the Department of Education’s efforts to create consistent and standardized language curriculum in all grades.

He also referred to Nunavut’s Official Languages Act and Inuit Language Protection Act.

“This level of protection for our Indigenous language is unprecedented in Canada,” he said.

David Joanasie, Nunavut’s real minister of education, tells 22 young people at a mock parliament last week that the Government of Nunavut can’t find enough bilingual Inuit teachers to offer Inuktut language instruction in every grade. (PHOTO BY BETH BROWN)

The mock MLA for Quttiktuq, Devon Manik of Resolute Bay, said he understands the government is working on Inuktut-language use.

But Manik said that in classrooms, “It’s not working. Will you fix the problem any time soon?”

“Having educated Inuktitut teachers that have a degree in teaching would significantly help,” Manik said.

Ika Vincent, the youth MLA for Iqaluit-Manirajak, asked why the Education Department doesn’t employ enough Inuktut teachers.

And Gjoa Haven youth MLA Crystal Mitchell said standardized exams in the territory don’t reflect what is learned in her classroom.

“Our Inuktut school work isn’t related at all to our exams,” said Mitchell.

She also said not all high schools in Nunavut offer the types of academic courses that are required for admission to university.

“Nunavut was created for Inuit,” said Cambridge Bay youth member Teghan Angulalik.

“We crave our culture, we crave our education. Is it possible to have Inuit-based education alongside the curriculum that is in place right now?”

The Pangnirtung youth member, Nathan Maniapik, said it became harder for him to speak Inuktitut after he went to high school, because English is the most prevalent language.

“I’m trying to get it back,” he said. “What are you doing about this?”

The Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu youth member, Jaiden Natanine, called the content in her Inuktitut class too “basic” to be useful in other subjects.

“It would be better if the class were a bit harder,” she said. “What is the minister doing to make high school classes more challenging?”

In his answers, Joanasie assured students that he wants Inuktut used at all levels of education, and for Inuit students to excel up to a post-doctorate level.

But making Inuktut language education a reality for all grades is going to take time, he said.

While Nunavut Arctic College is attempting to train Inuktut educators through its Nunavut Teacher Education Program, Nunavut needs 450 bilingual Inuktut-English educators to meet its needs.

But right now, the education department employs only 140 people who are able to teach in Inuktut, Joanasie said.

In opening and closing addresses to the youth parliament, Nunavut Commissioner Nellie Kusugak asked students to be part of the solution to the problems raised.

“It takes time and effort to work towards improving the lives of others,” Kusugak said.

“Make your vision for a brighter territory become a reality. If you want to make changes, you have to be involved,” she said.

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