Unravelling the Factors behind the Transition of the Inuit Language Regime

Historical Background

For centuries, the Inuit community, a group of culturally similar people inhabiting the Arctic region of Nunavut in Canada, was geographically isolated with its only interaction with the foreign world being on account of the extensive whaling operations in the territory and its fur trade with European merchants. The territory enjoyed negligible attention from the colonizers and then the federal government. This continued until the Canadian Supreme Court’s ruling in the Re Eskimo case wherein it was held that the Inuit should be constitutionally categorized as Indians in Canada, making the federal government legally responsible to include the Inuit within the purview of “Indians” as per the Indian Act, 1876. In spite of this, the federal government did not take any initiative to devise a comprehensive policy for the Inuit in this regard.

Employment of Activism as a Means of Bringing Change

What followed was a remarkable upsurge in Inuit activism. Certain literature by Farley Mowat, which includes ‘The Desperate People and Canada North’, as well as federal reports such as the ‘Hawthorn Report 1967’shed some light on the detestable economic, social and political conditions of the indigenous people in Northern Canada. This inspired the formation of numerous regional associations such as the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and the Committee for Original Peoples’ Entitlement, which went on to consolidate the demands of the Inuit and present them to the federal government. Repeated attempts were made to persuade the federal government to engage in negotiations for land claims with the community. After the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act and Nunavut Act were passed in 1993, the focus was shifted to the social, economic, political and cultural struggles of the indigenous community.

The resolute activism of the Inuit, complemented by the gradual transition in the bureaucracy’s demeanour towards linguistic rights, later culminated in the approval of a plethora of legislations appreciating the significance of linguistic rights of the Aboriginal people.

Canada’s Efforts towards Fulfilling its Linguistic Right Obligations

Canada is bound by a variety of international instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, which either directly or tacitly, are suggestive of the intrinsic link between human rights and linguistic rights. However, none of the domestic legislations passed in this regard attempt to place linguistic rights at a pedestal as high as that of human rights. Even though the efforts and initiatives being taken in the country signify a certain sense of respect for and acknowledgement of the integral place of language rights, affirming their status as human rights in Canada would be an exaggeration.

Although a number of legislations such as the Nunavut Act, 1993, the Nunavut Official Languages Act, 2008 and the Inuit Language Protection Act, 2000 have been passed with the objective of preserving and promoting the use of the indigenous languages of Nunavut, there has been a lack of effective enforcement of these legislations. Even the Bill introduced by Trudeau’s liberal government in the Canadian House of Commons entitled an ‘An Act respecting Indigenous Languages’ does not go on to set out what the ‘rights related to Indigenous languages’ would include, and makes no provision for any substantive obligations of the state including those in relation to Aboriginal language education, thereby indicating a dearth of prescription of a clear framework for implementation of the Bill, ensuing in an ostensibly promotional initiative on part of the government.

Examining the Provision of Instrumental and Non-Instrumental Rights

Prof. Rubio-Marín aptly described the role of language as “a marker of identity, a cultural inheritance and a concrete expression of community”. This suggests that the notion of non-instrumental rights requires the state’s commitment to help a certain collectivity achieve its goal of protecting its language. Non-instrumental rights can be manifested in three ways – first, by according official status to a language other than the majority language, as was also done in Nunavut by passing the Nunavut Official Languages Act, 2008; second, by bestowing the powers of self-governance to the linguistic minorities thus enabling them to protect their own linguistic environment, as is done in Nunavut by the Preamble to the Nunavut Agreement; third, assisting the linguistic minorities in their attempt to assert themselves and fight against the assimilation pressure of the dominant language by providing them with promotional rights, as has been done in Nunavut through the Nunavut Official Languages Act, 2008, the Preamble to which affirms that ‘contrary to past practice in which the Inuit Language was legally, socially and culturally subordinated in government and elsewhere, it is desirable that the Inuit Language be recognised as the Indigenous language of Nunavut’.

On the other hand, the idea underpinning the notion of instrumental rights is that one should not endure adversity in the form of discrimination or disadvantage due to the language one’s native language as this is not a choice one makes, and it should not act as an impediment the enjoyment of his/her civil, social and political rights as well as opportunities in society. Considering the example of Nunavut, the Nunavut Official Languages Act, 2008 specifies that the Inuit language can be used in the proceedings of any judicial or quasi-judicial bodies of Nunavut, every territorial institution of Nunavut is required to display public signage in the Inuit language, and a member of the public can communicate to and receive services of any of the territorial institutions in the Inuit language. Furthermore, Section 8(1) of the Inuit Language Protection Act, 2008 affirms that the right of a child to receive Inuit language instruction in education. All of these provisions make substantial contribution to the promotion of the instrumental language rights of the Inuit.

Nunavut’s Position in the Tolerance-Promotional Spectrum

A helpful approach of analysing language regimes formulated by Dr. Kloss, a German sociolinguist, involves viewing them through the lens of tolerance versus promotional approach. A tolerant language regime is one where the spontaneous expression of linguistic preferences in civil society is not restrained by state intervention.  On the other hand, a promotion-oriented language regime is one wherein there is active commitment on part of the state for protecting a certain language or languages. The considerable effort undertaken by the Canadian government to advance the linguistic interests of the autochthonous communities of Nunavut makes it possible to pigeon-hole Nunavut as a promotion-oriented language regime.

However, on account of the lack of proper enforcement of the legislations appreciating the importance of linguistic rights for the Aboriginal people, there are several spheres in which Nunavut is still relatively benighted.

Scrutinizing the Impact of the Inuit Language Policies

According to the quarterly report Toward a Representative Public Servicepublished recently, a detailed statistical report on employment in Nunavut, Nunavut is facing a grave crisis of under-employment owing to the lack of formal qualifications of the Inuit. 41% of the adults aged between 25 and 64 in Nunavut have not graduated from high school, as compared to the national average of 8%. It is important to hold the government accountable in this regard on account of not facilitating the dissemination of education with the indigenous language as the medium of instruction. A mere 3% of the Inuit population in Nunavut had acquired a university degree, as posited against 49% of the non-Inuit population in Nunavut possessing a university degree.  In addition to this, contrasting the national unemployment rate of 7.7%, Nunavut’s unemployment rate of 21.5% was the highest in the country and had, in fact, increased from 2011.

Despite the recent reformist educational policy of Nunavut, only a minority of the local schools identify Inuktitut as the medium of instruction. This can be partly attributed to the abysmal paucity of teachers qualified to teach in the indigenous languages of Nunavut. The federal government has a censure-worthy part to play here as well considering the fact that it spends a meagre $186 per Inuktitut speaker, which starkly juxtaposes with the $8,189 it spends per francophone in Nunavut.


The means and instruments of activism resorted to by the Inuit evidently played a notable role in their evolution from a community persuading the government to engage in land claim negotiations to having statutes protecting their cultural identity. One can also observe a gradual change in the attitude of the government towards linguistic human rights, indicating a transition in its language regime. There is still a long path to tread for the community in order to overcome certain impediments such as aspirational monolingualism and linguistic hierarchy. Efficient implementation of these legislations would also lead to a better standard of living for the Inuit in terms of employment and education.

Helen Klengenberg, the Nunavut Language Commissioner, summarizes the path towards achieving the goal aptly in the Annual Report of the Nunavut Languages Commissioner for 2017-2018stating that more emphasis is to be placed on the effective application of the Inuit Language Protection Act so as to ensure the protection and promotion of the quality and prevalence of Inuktitut in Nunavut.

This article is authored by Tanmay Gupta, a second-year law student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.

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