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NTI v GN 2021

Equality rights claim about Inuit language education


What is this lawsuit?

NTI, along with parents of Inuit students in Nunavut, are suing the Government of Nunavut (GN) over GN’s failure to provide Inuit children and youth education in their own language. The lawsuit says that by failing to provide children with this education, GN is violating their rights under s.15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees equal protection and benefit of the law.

Why is NTI filing this lawsuit?

NTI’s mission is to ensure that the promises made under the Nunavut Agreement are kept. One of the central objectives of the Agreement is to “encourage self-reliance and the cultural and social well-being of Inuit.” There is little that is more important to the cultural and social well-being of Nunavut Inuit than ensuring our language is not extinguished or irreversibly diminished.

Inuit language is spoken by 83% of Nunavut Inuit, and is the mother tongue of 63% of all Nunavut residents. But rates of mother-tongue transmission are declining.

Currently, Inuit language education is only available until grades 4 or 5, depending on the school.

GN made a commitment to provide education in the Inuit language, across subjects and for all grades. In 2008, the Nunavut Assembly passed two pieces of legislation that, in combination, required the provision of full Inuit language education throughout the entire Nunavut public school system by 2019-2020.

By 2020, GN had failed to provide full Inuit language education, and instead moved the goal posts by making amendments to the Education Act and the Inuit Language Protection Act. These amendments say that instead of offering curriculum that supports instruction in all grades in Inuit Language, once students reach grade 4 they are only entitled to an Inuit language arts class. Even this will not be an obligation throughout all of Nunavut until 2039.

Why a lawsuit, instead of working with GN?

NTI and community advocates have tried working with GN for many years. We still hope that GN will take action and deliver the Inuit language education our children and youth need. But we need to be forceful and vocal in the face of this violation of our children’s rights.

What are you asking the court to do?

We are asking the Court to declare that GN’s amendments to the Education Act, and the Inuit Language Protection Act infringe our children and youths’ rights under s.15 of the Charter, making those amendments “of no force and effect.” This means the amendments would have no power.

We are also asking the court to order GN to implement Inuit language education in all grades within five years of us winning the court case, starting with grade 6 within one year. To make sure this happens, we want the court to order GN to develop implementation plans, including a plan for greater involvement of Inuit in education governance, curriculum development, hiring and developing teachers, and resources to give our communities authority on delivery of education. Finally, we are asking the court to have GN make progress reports to the court every three months.

What Inuit languages are covered by this lawsuit?

The lawsuit is about education provided in Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun, which it refers to together as “Inuit Language”, sometimes also called Inuktut. This is one of Nunavut’s official languages, along with English and French.

Who else is a part of this lawsuit? Why is NTI a plaintiff?

NTI is bringing this lawsuit with Bernice Tujjaatuqaq Clarke, Lily Anne Maniapik, Inuit parents of Inuit children who want, and deserve, to have their children go to school in their language, in all grades and across subjects.

NTI is asking the court to rule that it has “public interest standing” to be a part of this lawsuit. NTI is asking this because of its mandate to represent all Nunavut Inuit, the seriousness of the Charter question, and NTI’s clear interest in this issue. NTI is also helping to pay for this important case, because it is unfair to expect individual parents to fight GN in court.

Why does NTI say this is discrimination?

Section 15 of the Charter says that governments discriminate against people when they treat them differently because of specific things about their identity, or when they take steps that seem neutral, but have a different impact on a group of people.

By offering all-grade, cross-subject education in two of Nunavut’s official languages (English and French) and not Inuit language, GN is discriminating against Inuit children and youth. Non-Inuit children in Nunavut get to be taught in the official language that is most suitable for them. Inuit children do not.

Why is language instruction in Inuit language important?

Going to school in our own language is absolutely essential for Nunavut Inuit.

Since the 1950s, Nunavut Inuit have been forced into English and French language schools. These schools are compulsory. Thanks to Inuit activism and leadership, schools now include Inuit language instruction. But when the Inuit language component stops in grade 4 or 5 (depending on the school), Inuit children and youth are forced to stay in school all day, and all year, learning a language other than their own.

Depriving Inuit children and youth of their language, and overriding their language with English or French instruction, threatens to destroy our heritage and culture. Language itself is an inherent, precious, part of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit that must not be erased. It is also the key to realizing our collective sovereignty and our individual senses of self, identity, and strength as Inuit.

Grounding in language and culture is a source of strength for Nunavut Inuit children and youth, many of whom face uniquely challenging hardships from a young age, including poverty, inadequate housing, and food insecurity. Our children and youth are the heart of our community, and they need to feel belonging and pride in their Inuit culture.

Depriving Inuit children and youth of learning in their culture also undermines their right to education, and harms their ability to achieve their full potential. Because school ceases to be accessible to them in their language after grade 4 or 5, Inuit students have worse attendance, and graduation rates than non-Inuit students. Many Nunavut Inuit leave school without strong proficiency in Inuit language or English.

By failing to educate a new generation of Nunavut Inuit who can read, speak, and work in their language, GN is undermining Nunavut Inuit’s powers of self-determination. Nunavut already has too few Inuit language-speaking and bilingual leaders, professionals, doctors, and teachers to serve and build our communities. By failing to provide Inuit language education after grade 4 or 5, and overriding Inuit language with English or French, GN is guaranteeing that Inuit will not have a next generation of leaders to represent, serve, and speak for our communities in our own words.  GN guaranteeing that in the future there won’t be enough people to provide essential services in our language. And failure to ground our children in culture is depriving us of tomorrow’s leaders and Elders.

Why isn’t a language arts class good enough?

A language arts program will be poorly suited to prepare the next generation of Inuktut-speaking professionals with the proficiency they need to be truly bilingual.

For a language to be a living, breathing part of life, it has to be used in all parts of life. Inuit language being relegated to just being one class out of many does not reflect or preserve its role as a living language for Inuit children and youth. Inuktut must be one of their languages of learning to both shape and reflect how Inuit children and youth experience the world.

Hasn’t this all been decided in legislation?

Inuit language and specifically Inuit language education are supposed to be protected in law. 2008’s Education Act, and the Inuit Language Protection Act set a timeline of 2019-2020 for ensuring students in all grades received education in Inuit language across subjects.

The amendments made in 2020 undo much-needed protections for Inuit children, accommodating government inaction instead of redoubling efforts to deliver.

The GN’s new, extended 2039 timeline for benchmarks in Inuit language instruction is inadequate.  The goals are too slow and unambitious to fulfil the rights of a young and growing Inuit population over the next twenty years. And it lacks urgency and accountability in response to failures to date.

Nunavut Inuit have learned that we cannot rely on the GN to protect our education language rights guaranteed under Nunavut law or the Charter. We are filing this lawsuit to protect our rights.

What’s wrong with pushing implementation of Inuit language education to 2039?

Waiting twenty years means that a whole generation of children will be deprived of their language. Inuit language is alive today. Without action right now, it may be extinguished, and with it a huge part of our culture.

Nunavut has a young population, and the fastest growing population in Canada. At the time of the last census, about 25% of our population was under 20. Trends suggest we will continue to become a younger and younger territory. By denying our children and youth the opportunity to live and learn in their language, we can forsee a future where fewer Inuit speak their language than speak only English.

What about the argument that there are limitations and challenges making it very hard to have more Inuit language education?

The GN made this commitment in 2008, and has had both the time and the opportunity to do the work to make Inuit language education a reality. This is not a “nice to have” or a side issue. This is mission-critical to the success of Nunavut as a home for Inuit.

GN has been aware of the importance of Inuit language education for over 20 years, and has not done enough work to make it a reality. In 2000, GN published the Bathurst Mandate and committed to “fully functional bilingual society, in Inuktitut and English.”

Recognizing the importance of education in this bilingualism, GN commissioned a study on language of instruction in Nunavut schools, which found that the “long-term threat to Inuit language from English is found everywhere, and current school language policies and practices on language are contributing to that threat.”

Next, Justice Berger’s 2006 report on how to move forward on implementing the Nunavut Agreement found that the single leading cause of the failure of the Nunavut school system was the failure to provide Inuit language education.

The GN Ministry of Education released the 2006 Qalattuq 10-year Educator Training Strategy, which would have trained over 300 Inuit teachers. It has failed to act on this strategy and train enough teachers.

GN received a warning that it was not meeting its targets for implementing Inuit language education in a 2013 report from the Auditor General of Canada. The report found that the pace of the development of Inuit Language curriculum and learning materials over a ten-year period was only at 50% of what was expected. The Government of Nunavut committed to take steps to address its failure and implement Inuit language education in accordance with the schedule in the Education Act. It failed to do so.

In 2015, GN received $50 million in settlement money from the Federal government, to be used to establish meaningful bilingual education. This has not happened.

GN has had time. It has made plans. It has not acted.  Our children and youth cannot wait any longer.

Other jurisdictions, include Greenland and Nunavik (Arctic Quebec), produce fully bilingual and trilingual graduates. We don’t think this is easy. But we have to insist that it happen for our children.

Will this lawsuit give local education boards more power?

We are asking the Court to order GN to develop a plan for greater involvement of Inuit in education governance, Inuit language curriculum development, and greater resources and enable Inuit authority on the delivery of education, recruitment, hiring and training of Inuit Language educators, development of plans for recruitment and training of Inuit educators, including superintendents, principals and vice-principals, teachers, language specialists and student support assistants.

One of the primary challenges with Inuit language education in Nunavut is under-investment and under-resourcing. Why doesn’t NTI use some of its billions of dollars to fix this problem?

NTI’s mission is to ensure that the promises made under the Nunavut Agreement are kept. One of the central objectives of the Agreement is to “encourage self-reliance and the cultural and social well-being of Inuit.” We know that this requires our people to speak our language. And that requires Inuit language education. If we did not require GN to keep this central promise of the Nunavut agreement, we would not be meeting our mandate.