Inuit balk at Nunavut gold mine's English-only rule

Inuit workers at a gold mining project in central Nunavut say they can't speak their mother tongue on the job — a rule that company officials say is necessary for safety reasons.

The Kivalliq Inuit Association is outraged with Agnico-Eagle Ltd.'s policy of making all mine workers speak only English while at work at Meadowbank, located about 70 kilometres north of Baker Lake on the western shore of Hudson Bay.

That means Inuit mine workers from the area cannot speak Inuktitut on the work site — not even "Qanuippit," which means, "Are you OK?"

"I found it was very inappropriate and very offensive," association vice-president Joe Kaludjak told CBC News on Thursday.

"The Inuit people have power on these kinds of things — language especially. It's protected and it can be used anywhere you want."

Company officials say the English-only rule applies mainly to radio communications.

The issue came up earlier this week at the association's board meeting in Rankin Inlet, when Baker Lake board member Ewin Evo voiced his concern with Inuit workers being forbidden to speak Inuktitut.

Martin Bergeron, Agnico-Eagle's general manager for Western Canada and Nunavut, said the company strives to be respectful of Inuit language and culture, along with the many other cultural backgrounds that converge at the Meadowbank site.

"If you go at the kitchen or cafeteria area, for example, you will hear a mixture of languages. People are enjoying themselves in their own language and are comfortable," Bergeron said.

"We do not stop people from using their own language. We want, for safety reasons, to make sure that people use a common language — English — when on the worksite."

Bergeron added that the company does everything it can to protect Nunavut's Inuit culture.

The Kivalliq Inuit Association promised to set up a meeting with the company in October so they can discuss the issue further.