Mary Simon, Arctic Indigenous Languages Symposium
Transcript of the original speech. Complete PDF presentation available to download at the bottom of this text under attached files.
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Mary Simon, National President Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, ITK
October 20, 2008
‘Good Intentions Are Not Enough’
goddag (hello in Norwegian), ullakuut,
Thank you, for that warm welcome and for inviting me to Tromso to speak on a subject
of enormous importance to me – the future of our Inuit Language in Canada - Inuktitut.
Of course, I am delighted to be back in Norway, A country I have visited a number of
times in various roles from which I have many fond memories.
Today, in 2008, indigenous peoples of the circumpolar world are facing many
challenging issues relating to our environment our economies and the social conditions in
our communities. But I do not think there is an issue that speaks more to who we are and
how we are doing than the state of our indigenous languages.
And it is for this reason that I never hesitate to travel great distances to discuss and
exchange ideas on how to preserve and revitalize our languages.
It is always encouraging and motivating for me to be in a room full of people committed
to holding on to the language we have, and bringing about a new era of Indigenous
language growth and development – so I want to thank you for traveling here this week to
contribute to these important discussions on our Arctic indigenous languages.
Before I begin my remarks today, I want to extend a thank you to the Department of
Canadian Heritage for committing to sponsor this symposium, and to the Arctic Council
Sustainable Development Working Group for the vision to hold this conference during
this period when Norway is chair of the Arctic Council.
I will be speaking today about what is happening in Canada regarding indigenous
language development that we are going through right now but my remarks have been
prepared with other circumpolar countries in mind – because I know that we all share
similar experiences of adversity in seeing our languages threatened and that we all share
a commitment to reversing this trend.
The title of my remarks today is ‘Good Intentions are not Enough’.
Now, what do I mean by this?
I mean that to realize a vision of when it is normal throughout Canada for Inuit children
to graduate from high school bilingual in their mother tongue Inuktitut and English or
French it must take a deliberate strategy of policy changes in our country.
When I say that ‘good intentions are not enough’ I mean that to get to the day when it
will be normal for our children to achieve their linguistic skills not only at home and in
the community but through subjects such as math and history taught by Inuktitut
speaking teachers using Inuit Language textbooks and curriculum materials it must take
more than hope because, as the saying goes, hope is not a plan.
For our Inuit children to have the same opportunity to become well-grounded in their
language and culture –as English and French speaking children have today in Canada –
we must have more than good intentions we must be very deliberate in causing shifts to
occur that will change how our countries accept and support our indigenous languages.
And I am cautiously optimistic that in Canada, some of the key pieces for the shift to take
place to implement our vision are beginning to be set in place.
Since Inuit in Canada first began getting organized in the 1970’s, we have dedicated a
great deal of our political effort to securing rights over our land and resources through the
negotiation of land claims agreements in each of our four Inuit regions.
And I am delighted to report that last year Inuit completed negotiations on the fourth and
final regional Inuit Land Claims Agreement in Nunatsiavut, northern Labrador.
On many occasions over this period of political development, Inuit expressed their hope
and desire that our language – Inuktitut – would be preserved, promoted and in some of
our regions, revitalized.
Through the good work of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and
regional Inuit organizations, there were language commissions, and numerous language
initiatives all aimed at securing the health of our language.
These initiatives to stabilize and grow our language were in response to what we are
seeing in our communities everyday:
* Inuktitut as the language in the home was declining.
* In 2006, about 25,500 Inuit, 50% of the total number of Inuit in Canada, reported that
Inuktitut was their home language, down 8%, from when it was measured 10 years
* Only 15% of Inuit living in urban areas reported being able to converse in Inuktitut
compared with 84% in Inuit Nunaat, our Arctic homeland in Canada.
* Our education systems were at various stages of emerging from the long shadow of
dominant language teaching where Inuktitut had been forbidden or marginalized.
Over the years, the response by our government to our appeal for recognition and
preservation of our language resulted in sporadic and fragmented support usually tied to
short-term initiatives launched under the general title of ‘cultural programming’.
And this is what I mean by “good intentions are not enough” because for all the good
work we put into promoting the importance of our indigenous languages until there is a
substantive shift in belief by our governments about the value of our language to the
health of our people and the health of our communities language initiatives will be
forever condemned to the whim of ‘on again off again’ funding for ‘general cultural
programming’ by our government.
I believe that the first step to move us beyond good intentions is awakening our
governments to the legitimacy and validity of our indigenous languages.
Our language is not just something that needs the odd program of support under the
‘catch all’ of cultural programming. It is much more than that our language is who and
what we are and the health of our language lies at the core of our well-being.
Earlier this year Canadians witnessed what I believe. is the first small step by the
Canadian government in shifting their view and their core belief on the role our language
plays in our well-being.
In June this year in our Canadian Parliament our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper
delivered a historic Apology to First Nations and Inuit for their experiences in residential
The Prime Minister’s Apology recognized our long recovery from the experience of
Canadian government education policy that removed and isolated our children from their
parents by sending them to residential schools and in so doing, isolating our children
from our culture and isolating our children from our language during those critical years
when a first language is learned.
The Prime Minister’s Apology finally gave voice and recognition to what we, as Inuit,
have been saying for many, many years. that the education system built by our
government has had ‘profoundly negative’ consequences and ‘damaging impact’ on our
In my response in Parliament to the Prime Minister’s Apology I told him that our
Language – one of Canada’s original languages – is still strong. I wanted him to hear this
message because despite the many years of adversity that our Inuit language has faced –
our language does remain rich, and alive, and spoken by enough Inuit across Inuit Nunaat
to give hope for its long term survival.
I also told the Prime Minister that as a result of this historic apology, I felt that a “new
day had dawned” for “building a new relationship with Inuit”
And I sincerely believe this that we are at a point in our history, where reversing this
long decline in our language. is possible because this historic Apology signifies a shift in
attitude about the importance of our Inuit Language.
The Apology came at a time when there is a growing body of research supporting our
view that indigenous language education is key to the health of our communities.
Earlier this year the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues published an
‘Expert Paper’ on “Indigenous Children’s Education and Languages”, and I encourage all
of you to read this report.
Five international experts in indigenous studies examined the published research on
indigenous children learning in schools where the language of instruction was a dominant
language, such as English.
Since the beginning of formal schooling for Inuit, we have faced a policy of dominant
language teaching in English or French. My own experience in northern Quebec was
entering a federal school at age six, speaking only Inuktitut, and being told I would be
punished if I was heard speaking my own language.
The main conclusion of the UN Expert Panel after examining all the research was this
(and I quote): “the greatest predictor of long-term success in school for indigenous
children is how long they receive instruction through their first language. The length of
time students receive education in their mother tongue “is more important than any other
factor (including socio-economic status) in predicting the educational success of bilingual
students. The worst results are with students in programs where the student’s mother
tongues are not supported at all, or where they are only taught as subjects”.
The UN Expert Panel also made reference to two un agreements– the UN International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights , and the UN Convention on the
Rights of the Child, both agreements of which Canada is a signatory to, and both of
which speak to the right of all children to education.
The Expert Panel wrote,
”given what we know about the effects of enforced dominant language education
policies, that result not only in considerably poorer performance results but also higher
levels of non-completion (of school), the pursuit of such policies could be said to be
contrary to the right of (indigenous children) to an education.”
In other words, if the model of education chosen for a school does not allow indigenous
children to be educated through a language the child understands, the child is effectively
being denied access to their right of an education.
We should be viewing and arguing for education in our indigenous languages as a human
Viewing our language as a right and not simply a cultural aspiration (and it is both),
opens up all sorts of arguments in defence of supporting the growth of development of
our language. In Canada for example, there is an emerging discussion among legal
experts that Section 35 of our 1982 Constitution Act may give Inuit and other aboriginal
peoples enforceable rights to publicly funded aboriginal language programming.
So I believe we are at a point in Canada where a shift is occurring marked in a historic
way by the Apology and supported by emerging research, legal arguments, and
international voices that acknowledges the role of our language Inuktitut in the health of
our communities, and the right of Inuit to learn in their language. I also believe that Inuit
must take full advantage of the opportunity presented to us by this apology.
The second shift that needs to occur to move us beyond ‘good intentions’ is a shift in the
policy processes and political power that supports our indigenous language.
what do I mean by this?
I mean that to reclaim the legitimacy of our mother tongue, and revitalize its value in our
communities, we must control our education systems and transform our government
agencies and policies.
Of course, this does not happen overnight.
In 1978, following the settlement of their Land claims, the Inuit of Nunavik - Northern
Quebec took control of their education system and established the Kativik School Board.
This year marks their 30th anniversary.
Today, the Kativik School Board system offers children in Nunavik instruction in
Inuktitut until Grade 3 and then in Grade 4 parents choose English or French as a second
language. The objective of the school system is for students to master Inuktitut and have
a proficiency in a second language.
Our newest Inuit self-government – in Nunatsiavut, northern Labrador, will soon take
control of their education system as a result of the land Claims agreement.
And in Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory, where 85% of the population is Inuit, their
public education system and government agencies are undergoing a transformation.
Just last month, the Government of Nunavut enacted two historic pieces of legislation a
new Education Act that will set a unprecedented course for education in that territory a
bilingual system based on Inuit cultural values and the Government of Nunavut also
passed an Inuit Language Protection Act aimed at reversing the language decline among
Inuit, through measures that ensure Inuktitut will be used daily in services and
communications with the public.
When he introduced the legislation, Nunavut’s Minister of Culture, Language, Elder’s
and Youth, the Honourable Louis Tapardjuk, said and I quote : “There is an absence in
Canadian society of understanding, respect, and basic rights and the means that are
necessary to achieve some sense of equality between speakers of the Inuit language and
those that speak the other two official languages”.(end quote)
By introducing new laws, Minister Tapardjuk was taking ‘the means that are necessary’,
and that were possible through his role as a lawmaker, to enable a shift to take place in
society that gives greater legitimacy to our Inuit Language.
And these ‘necessary means’, such as passing enabling legislation to protect our Inuit
languages, must also be pursued at a national level.
An unprecedented policy shift also occurred recently in the Government of Canada’s,
Senate. Through the determined efforts of 2 Inuit Senators – Senator Charlie Watt, and
Senator Willie Adams, Inuktitut became the first aboriginal language to be used in the
Senate chamber and two Senate committees.
The formation of new indigenous or public governments the introduction of new
legislation or policies in support of our language the systematic transformation of our
education systems. These are examples of what I mean by the 2nd step that needs to
happen beyond ‘good intentions’ and that is taking concrete measures that change the
configuration of policies and practices and power. In society that will legitimize our Inuit
The third shift that needs to take place for our Indigenous languages to reverse their
decline and take hold in our communities is support for the development of new
institutions and programs that support the growth and development of our language.
As many of you know, the Maori of New Zealand are considered to have one of the most
successful language revitalization programs in the world.
There is not the time today to go into the many reasons for their success in revitalizing
the Maori Language, but I do want to mention one of their key investments – and that is
the establishment in 2002, of the national Institute of Research Excellence for Maori.
This investment has made it possible for over 2000 Maori scholars, community members
and international academics to engage in new research publish the results of this research
and contribute to the overall knowledge about Maori.
These types of key investments in institutions that support the growth of our language
and culture, and promote the development of our linguists and scholars, is essential to
ensuring that the next phase of our Indigenous Language programming is about growth
For these reasons, my organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami has put forward a number of
policy proposals to our Canadian government that speak to this need for an institutional
capacity to support our language -Inuktitut.
First, we have submitted a proposal for the establishment of an Inuit Knowledge Centre
that will be the focus for research on and by Inuit and foster the next generation of Inuit
We have said that while universities have been a productive partner for many years in an
Inuit Research agenda, Inuit also have expertise to think about, write about and interpret
our own culture. An Inuit Knowledge Centre would serve to boost the legitimacy and
value of Inuit knowledge in research initiatives.
Secondly, as a result of our recent Summit on Inuit Education, ITK is also proposing that
an Inuit Language Development Institute be established to serve as a Centre of
Excellence linking language preservation and revitalization efforts in the 4 Inuit regions.
Right now, there is very little national capacity to coordinate the revitalization efforts for
the Inuit language. The Inuktitut Language centre would link language preservation and
revitalization efforts in our 4 Inuit regions and support efforts to produce Inuit language
instruction materials, language research, elder vocabulary documentation and it would
coordinate an annual language symposium.
Thirdly, we have stressed to our government that the road to language revitalization lies
in an investment that will accelerate the number of Inuit educators and service providers
we graduate each year.
We have a labour shortage when it comes to Inuktitut speaking teachers and daycare
workers. Our Teacher Education programs and service provider programs must increase
their number of graduates through a new level of investment that closes this gap in our
These new initiatives along with support for the numerous language initiatives that are
advanced in our regional centres and our communities and the exciting new possibilities
for promoting the development of our language through technology and media should
come under the umbrella of multi-year language agreement with our government.
So this is what I mean by the third shift that needs to happen beyond ‘good intentions’
and that is establishing a specific multi-year language agreement with our government
that makes strategic investments in key language initiatives aimed at growing and
developing our language.
Redress for an education policy that so systematically weakened our language must
involve acceptance by our government that our determined effort at reclaiming our
language needs a long-term commitment of support.
This commitment involves our government accepting that Inuit will define the new
narrative for our people and fundamental to that narrative is the restoration of a healthy
and vibrant Inuktitut language.
* Firstly, through our work as leaders, and community organizers, and linguists and
media experts we must push our governments to recognize that our language goals cannot
be boxed into narrowly defined cultural programs, but rather must be viewed as a right,
and a measure of the health of our communities.
* Secondly, we must seize every opportunity, as Minister Tapardjuk did in Nunavut,
and our Inuit Senators did in the Canadian Senate, to facilitate a shift in policy processes,
and in the political power, that supports our indigenous language, and
* Thirdly, we must work tirelessly at promoting the emergence of new institutions and
programs that foster the growth and development of our language.
And surrounding these fundamental shifts must be our continued effort to promote and
value our language in our communities, in our schools and our homes.
* We must develop a new generation of school administrators who are willing to
implement a bold vision of bilingualism for our schools.
* We must encourage our established Inuit educators and elders writing curriculum
material and serving as leaders and mentors for the new generation of younger teachers,
* We need to communicate our ideas on language to parents in order to build their
support for promoting language use at home.
Each generation must decide if it wants to settle for the world of their parents, or if they
want to improve upon the past.
In Canada, through no fault or intention of our parents they were part of a generation of
national education policy that had catastrophic consequences for our language.
I believe it is our responsibility to honour our parents and elders and past generations by
leading a new era in language revitalization.
I believe it is our responsibility to use our skills in politics, our knowledge of technology
and public policy as our tools of action to move our governments beyond their statements
of good intentions, into a new era – that will look at the health of our languages as a
measure of our well-being.
Our tools of action must challenge the assumptions that have characterized our
governments approach to our aboriginal languages that our language is in some way not
as legitimate or not as useful as the dominant languages.
Our tools of action must be transformative in their aims and take place at all levels, from
our communities to the highest level of government.
When you leave Tromso later this week, I hope you will be carrying with you a briefcase
full of ideas and a network of contacts for pushing your language initiatives to their next
level. These are your tools of action and it will be through your collective energy and
your ideas that change will happen.
As leaders, as practitioners, as media experts, as linguists, we must get up every day and
put into practice a vision for our indigenous languages in our homes and our businesses,
our schools, and in our church and community organizations.
Those of us who hold positions of social influence in our communities and by that I mean
educators, and elders, and language committee members, and community leaders we
must continue to be or become…language champions.
Over the next two days, I look forward to exchanging ideas with you on where and how
we can use your ideas to launch a new era of growth and vibrancy for our indigenous
Nakurmiik, takk (thank you)
Mary Simon is President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada’s national Inuit organization. She was Canada’s Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, and Ambassador to Denmark. As an Inuit leader she has been president of Makivik Corporation in Nunavik, and the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). She has received honorary doctorate of law degrees from McGill, Queen’s, Trent and Memorial Universities, and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.