Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

The need for standardization

Jeela Palluq-Cloutier
Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit
(Inuit Language Authority), Nunavut

The Government of Nunavut adopted the Official Languages Act and the Inuit Language Protection Act in 2008. The new Official Languages Act continues to protect the rights of English and French, but raises Inuktut 1 to equal official status (Braen, 2009). The Inuit Language Protection Act goes a step further by guaranteeing that Inuktut will be given prominence in education, at work and in the day‑to‑day services provided to Nunavummiut, thus establishing an urgent need for the standardization of the language. The Act also mandates the use of Inuktut in early childhood and adult education programs and services, and requires special measures to be taken to address the need for language promotion and revitalization, particularly in communities and age groups where there are concerns about language loss. There are several actions that the government can take to protect and promote the use of Inuktut. One of the key elements will be to standardize the language, particularly in writing, in order to support quality education in Inuktut, to allow people to perform their daily work effectively in Inuktut, and to enable the government and businesses to provide services that are easily understood by everyone, regardless of the region they are from or the dialect they speak. For this purpose, the Government of Nunavut has established the Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit, the Inuit language authority, as an independent public agency with the power to make decisions on the development, use and standardization of Inuktut.

The issue of standardizing Inuktut is not new. There have been discussions on this topic going back as far as forty years. When the Canadian government called for a unified writing system to distribute materials to all Inuit across Canada, it called on linguists Lefebvre and Gagné to design a writing system based on Roman orthography. This system was not accepted by many Inuit because they were not willing to let go of syllabics. At that time letting go of syllabics was seen by some elders as trying to change the words of God, since the Bible was their only reading material (Harper, 1983).

Prior to the establishment of the Government of Nunavut, the issue of standardization was discussed at a language policy conference held in 1998 by the Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC). Out of fifty recommendations made at the conference, nine dealt directly with orthography and standardization. The issue was found to be delicate and emotional for many Inuit, and it was felt that it would be difficult to resolve at that time (Bell, 1998, 2002). The NIC therefore recommended that, before any decision was made with respect to which writing system or dialect would be used as the standard in the future, the government should conduct thorough consultations with Nunavummiut, including elders, but also young people "because they are the ones who will have to use and teach these systems and deal with the future implications" (1998: p. 25).

More than thirty years after the dual writing system was adopted, over ten years after language policy directions were provided to the new territorial government, and after new territorial language laws were finally passed in 2008, a lot of discussions have taken place in recent years with experts and community leaders at various meetings on standardization (Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth [CLEY], 2009, 2010, 2012; Inuit Circumpolar Council, 2008; Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit, 2011). People and organizations are getting more familiar with the need for standardization, and the idea has never had more support than now (Bell, 2010, 2011; Rogers, 2011).

Some members of the Legislative Assembly have also called on the Government of Nunavut to develop options and a plan to implement one writing system in Nunavut, and possibly one standardized dialect as the written norm (Hansard, 2009, 2010). Then member of the Legislative Assembly for Iqaluit East, Paul Okalik, made the following statement:

If we want Inuktitut to be used in the future, I believe that we will have to use one standardized writing system. If individuals want to use the syllabic system, we're not going to stop them. As a government, we have to start looking at what the government system should be. If we want the majority of the workforce to utilize the Inuktitut language, we need to have a standardized writing system in order for the language to be utilized. (Standing Committee, 2010: p. 54)

In October 2011 Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated issued its annual report on the state of Inuit culture and society, with a special focus on the state of the Inuit language in Nunavut. The report contained the following conclusion:

If effective bilingual education is to be a realistic goal in Nunavut, development of education and supplementary reading materials must be robust, cost-effective, and streamlined. The only realistic solution to delivering such materials while maintaining quality control is for government, the education system, and future publishers to choose a single dialect for use in printed materials. This would allow publication to be centralized and resourced accordingly, assuming the necessary infrastructure would be in place. (pp. 47, 48)

The Nunavut Languages Commissioner's office also wrote in its 2010‑2011 report that "standardized orthography is important for the long‑term survival of the language." The report also made reference to the work of a Ph.D. scholar who has studied Inuktitut syllabic literacy in Iqaluit and Igloolik. In addition, the report recommended that more consideration be given to further legitimizing writing in Roman orthography to make reading and writing more accessible to young Inuit using new technologies.

At the national level, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) is also calling for a standardized Inuktut. The ITK produced a National Strategy on Inuit Education stating that "introduction of a standardized writing system, gradually and incrementally implemented through the school system, beginning with early childhood education language programs, followed by K‑3 and then higher grades, will ultimately improve educational outcomes for Inuit. A standardized writing system will also facilitate the development and sharing of new terminology in the Inuit language, thus enriching the language" ( ITK , 2011: p. 89). After making this statement, the ITK made a recommendation to establish an Inuit Task Force to explore the introduction of a standardized writing system for Inuit in Canada.

At the private sector level, it was also stressed that, while businesses share the goal to protect and promote the Inuit language in Nunavut, they do not have the capacity and resources to provide services in many different dialects. Some businesses have called on government and Inuit organizations to demonstrate strong leadership by explaining clearly, in plain language, the benefits of standardization to all Nunavummiut and its necessity in providing quality services to the public (Arctic Co‑operatives Limited, 2009; CLEY , 2009).

Despite this support, the standardization of Inuktut will be a challenging task, as our dialects vary from one region to another and even from one community to another. As was reported at the Nunavut regional roundtables on language, some people even opt to speak in English when conversing with someone from a different dialect ( CLEY , 2009). When points of linguistic variations are not recognized or, more accurately, not reconciled, there is the potential for arguments about whose language is "correct" or "real" (Grenoble & Whaley, 2006). When a standard is chosen, it can actually help defuse potential "tensions" between users of different dialects and shift the attention to the standard itself instead. Consideration will also need to be given to the need to revitalize the use of Inuktut in some communities, particularly in the Qitirmiut, and to the question of how to mitigate potential resistance to a common written standard for all of Nunavut.

There will need to be a strong argument as to why standardization is essential for the modern government and daily business, as well as why it is important for the survival of the Inuit language. Information and education sessions on the dialectal differences or, maybe more importantly, on the similarities between dialects will be needed. The Government of Nunavut and Inuit organizations need to take strong leadership on this matter. They will need to ensure that people understand how standardization will help unite Nunavummiut—as the proverbial expression goes, "United we stand, divided we fall." Standardization must also involve youth, who are the torch bearers of our language and will carry it into the future of the Inuit people, who have a unique and distinct cultural and linguistic identity within Canada.


Back to the note 1  The term Inuktut in this paper will be used to refer to both Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun in Nunavut.


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