30-year-old federal document shows plan to 'block' Inuktut services, Inuit group says

Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), the organization that represents the Inuit of Nunavut in negotiations, says it has uncovered a 30-year-old document containing secret instructions to government lawyers to “block” the use of Inuktut.

In a news release sent Thursday, NTI said the documents obtained via an Access to Information request show “Prime Minister [Brian] Mulroney and his cabinet knowingly and deliberately blocked use of Inuktitut in government services in the territory.”

But a closer examination of the documents indicates that the federal government left the door open for future negotiations that could guarantee Inuktut language rights.

Inuktut is a term used to encompass all Inuit languages, including Inuktitut.

The document, dated March 27, 1990, appears to contain the mandate given to the federal government’s negotiators during the drafting of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. The settling of the Inuit land claim was a precursor to the creation of Nunavut.

Advisory documents produced for cabinet, like this one, are kept secret for a minimum period of 20 years to ensure that cabinet deliberations remain confidential.

No ‘linguistic guarantees’

The mandate contains 26 visible numbered paragraphs, offering negotiating positions on everything from the establishment of national parks to the status of “archaeological specimens.”

NTI’s news release highlights a portion of the mandate that reads: “The Final Agreement shall not contain any guarantee for the creation of a Nunavut Territory or provide general linguistic guarantees for the use of Inuktitut in government and the legal and educational system in the claims area.”

“The paragraph is very clear,” said Aluki Kotierk, president of NTI. “When I read it, I hear the colonial system still explaining that Inuit language is not as important as the official languages of this nation, although … this nation was created on our land.”

In the 1990 agreement in principle just one month later, Mulroney reversed his government’s advice on the creation of a Nunavut territory, signing his “support in principle” for its establishment “outside of the claims process.”

But no similar reversal occurred for the guarantee of Inuktut language rights.

The news release goes on to say “as a result” of this paragraph, “Inuit continue to suffer from lack of adequate accessible government services in their own homeland.”

Today, while the territory recognizes Inuktitut as an official language, the federal government does not. Many federal services are not available in the Inuit languages, and Inuktut lacks the same constitutional status and protections as English and French.

Brian Mulroney signs the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement in 1993, with Paul Quassa, second from left, who later became premier, looking on. (Nick Newbery)

Mandate did not prevent future agreements on Inuktitut

But the NTI release omits the final sentence of the paragraph in the mandate: “Guarantees negotiated for the use of Inuktitut in relation to joint management structures established pursuant to the agreement are acceptable.”

In simpler language, that meant future agreements between the federal government and Inuit organizations could guarantee the use of Inuktut in the education and justice systems — they just couldn’t be included in the land claim.

“I don’t recall them telling us that the Nunavut government wouldn’t recognize the Inuktitut language,” said Paul Quassa, a former premier of Nunavut and the lead negotiator on the 1993 final agreement.

Quassa says language rights were never on the table during those land claim negotiations.

“When we wanted to negotiate social programs … the feds told us these were government programs… [and] they cannot be part of the land claims process,” said Quassa. He said that’s why Inuit were adamant in pushing for self-government in the territory.

That government was established with the creation of the territory in 1999, under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

“As you can see, once we created Nunavut, Inuktitut became the official language,” he said.

Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., says the instructions reveal how Inuktut was placed on an unequal footing to the territory’s other official languages from the very beginning. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

Blocking ‘constitutional recognition’

But for Kotierk, the instructions reveal how Inuktut was placed on an unequal footing to the territory’s other official languages from the very beginning.

“This just demonstrates that 30 years ago, that was the thinking behind what was happening, that English and French was a superior language to our own,” she said.

While the final agreement contains provisions mandating the availability of government information and services in Inuktitut, Part 8 does state that “the English and French versions shall be the authoritative versions” of the agreement.

Quassa said negotiators were reluctant to include any Inuktitut words in the agreement, even in sections pertaining to hunting and wildlife — but as negotiator, he managed to sneak one in.

“We somehow got the word … ‘soapstone’ in Inuktitut added in the final agreement,” he said. “So we won in that little sense.”

NTI’s news release says the decision to omit “linguistic protection” from the land claim has denied Inuit language rights under Section 35 of the constitution, which protects rights secured in treaties with Indigenous peoples.

Subsequent territorial legislation, like the Inuit Language Protection Act, have tried to affirm those rights. But implementing that legislation — which requires Inuktut instruction in schools and Inuit languages on signage — has been a challenge.

Kotierk says, while the federal government has poured resources into preserving French language rights over the past 30 years, Inuktut has received second-class treatment.

“We’re still at that point where we’re trying to assert who we are, and live in dignity, and have our heads held up high in our own homeland, using our own language,” she said.

“I think the federal government has an opportunity to correct the mistakes they have made in treating Inuktut as a language that is inferior to French and English…. What I want to see is concrete action to ensure that Inuktut continues to thrive.”

Kotierk is adamant that the documents show the federal government’s disregard for Inuit languages, and are one more example of how the federal government has stymied efforts to preserve them.

“Language is a personal issue for anyone,” said Kotierk. “And I think people should be upset about it.”

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