Language and Reconciliation

“One of my friends…I can see her plainly today because I was so afraid of this nun who came up to her and…looked like she was going to kill her. She grabbed her by the neck and just shook her. ‘Don’t ever let me hear you speak your language again!’”

Decades later, Lillian Elias still remembered this moment from the Aklavik residential school she attended, starting around age 8. Like many Inuit children across the Canadian north, she was sent from home under government pressure. “You didn’t dare speak your language” once there, she explained, “even if you didn’t know how to speak in English. You would get roughed up.”

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted, protecting traditional languages is crucial to Indigenous cultural flourishing and self-determination. But even Inuktut, the second most spoken Indigenous language in this country, faces tremendous pressure.

“In 2011, an estimated 75% of Inuit youth weren’t graduating high school.”

So although the residential schools have closed, Inuit today are still fighting to preserve their language. And they’ve found support from The Counselling Foundation of Canada, whose desire to help Inuit learners succeed led to an ambitious philanthropic investment with far wider implications.


The Greatest Challenge

The foundation’s investment began in 2011, when an estimated 75% of Inuit youth weren’t graduating high school. Since those leaving without a diploma were over a third less likely to end up employed, the gap had potentially devastating human costs. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a nonprofit coordinating body that represents Inuit in Canada, called facing such educational shortfalls “the greatest social policy challenge of our time.”

One key problem was linguistic. The national strategy on Inuit education released by ITK in 2011 highlighted research showing that around the world, mother-tongue instruction is the single greatest predictor of educational success for Indigenous minority children. The longer it lasts, the better they do—even at learning further languages.

By 2011, governments across the four provinces and territories with major Inuit populations were recognizing these communities’ need for culturally specific education. But efforts at traditional-language schooling confronted a basic obstacle. Inuktut, the Inuit language, encompasses a dozen main dialects and nine distinct writing systems. These systems are themselves split between two entirely separate scripts, some using Roman letters and others syllabics, the distinctive characters developed during 19th-century missionary efforts to produce texts in Ojibwe and Cree. This variety means that schools spread across the Inuit’s traditional territories, Inuit Nunangat, can’t easily develop shared teaching materials.

When Lillian first arrived at residential school, she found the assigned texts baffling: “I thought Dick and Jane were in heaven when I saw all the green grass.” And although Inuit youth today are obviously far more aware of southern life, Peter Geikie (former Director of ITK’s Amaujaq National Centre for Inuit Education) explains that when he was a high school teacher, “a lot of resources that we used out of Alberta talked about farming…and the realities of living in Calgary”—English-language texts still disconnected from students’ lives and culture. To run classes in Inuktut, many teachers had to develop their own basic resources.

Inevitably, by 2011 the language was being lost. By then, 63.3% of Inuit said they could hold a conversation in one of their traditional dialects, but this was already a 5.5% drop since just 2006.

A 25-Year Plan

When Counselling Foundation President Bruce Lawson asked in 2011 how the foundation could best support Inuit educational success, Udloriak Hanson—then Special Assistant to ITK’s President—suggested helping unify written Inuktut.

Community representatives and experts had concluded that establishing a standard for school use would be necessary for real progress, she explained. It would pave the way for improvements in areas such as post-secondary career preparation, which were realistically still more than fifteen years away. But ITK couldn’t yet begin this long-term plan, since government programs wouldn’t cover the cost.

Linguistic reform wasn’t the most obvious funding choice for The Counselling Foundation. Frank Lawson established the philanthropic organization in 1959 to support career counselling for young people. (He was inspired both by his longtime involvement with the YMCA and his professional success in finance, a career chosen after extensive research in the library of a WWI prisoner-of-war camp.) And although the foundation made grants as early as 1987 helping Indigenous youth—funding the Laurentian University Native Students Association to help make counselling services more accessible there—it had never supported either a language-preservation or Inuit-specific project.

“People were crying and being emotional and angry at times, but it was all good.”

ITK’s proposal meant stretching beyond the foundation’s usual focus on career development and employability. But because basic education is critical to those ends, Bruce and the board decided that investing in it was justified. Since community leaders had identified Inuit-language instruction as a key need, Bruce explains, the foundation felt that “if we believe in the idea of supporting Indigenous Peoples in this country, this is a place we should put our money where our mouth is.”

Finding Words for the Children

From 2011 through 2017, the foundation provided $600,000 for ITK’s work on Inuktut unification, with another $400,000 over the next two years just approved last December. The project has developed through deep consultation with Inuit communities across Canada—including emotionally charged public meetings, which underscored this work’s importance beyond graduation rates. ITK Language Coordinator Monica Ittusardjuat, also a residential school survivor, recalls young people talking about “how difficult it was being an Inuk and not being able to speak to their grandparents…crying for material to help them learn the language.”

ITK gathered a working group of linguists, educators and other specialists from different regions to guide the project. Their passionate discussions echoed broader worries about unification’s possible effect on individual dialects, to which many Inuit were deeply attached. Working toward a single standard wasn’t easy: “people were crying and being emotional and angry at times, but it was all good,” recalls Monica. As she said at one meeting, “when you’re building an igloo, you have to take a little part off this block and that block and the one at the bottom, so that it’ll fit together at the end.”

This project is one philanthropic step toward righting colonial relations.

All this led up to the 2015 National Inuit Language Summit in Iqaluit, also attended by Inuit representatives from Greenland and Alaska—peoples whose own languages are close enough to Inuktut that speakers in attendance could largely understand them without translation. Out of that event came the resolution to pursue an Inuktut standard using Roman letters, rather than syllabics: the more compatible a writing system was with new digital technologies, many argued, the better it could preserve the language. But anything developed was to focus on providing Inuit students with a common framework for learning, rather than forcing adults to adopt new conventions.

The work continues today, with ITK planning to submit a proposal for unified Inuktut spelling and grammar to Inuit leaders by mid-2018.


The Bigger Picture

The Counselling Foundation’s support for the first writing system “created by Inuit for Inuit in Canada” is one philanthropic step toward righting colonial relations. But the foundation sees an even bigger picture on reconciliation.

Over the past six years, it has made other grants to benefit Indigenous Peoples in Canada, including funds for a University of Victoria program that trains psychology students to combine traditional helping and healing practices with western counselling methods. It has also supported reconciliation more generally by funding groups from the 4Rs Youth Movement to The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada—which works to boost foundation support for Indigenous communities, with giving guided by their own priorities and world views. And the foundation was among those who helped author and promote “The Philanthropic Community’s Declaration of Action,” committing to work in common cause with Indigenous Peoples, which was presented on stage at the Ottawa Closing Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in June, 2015.

Through all this, The Counselling Foundation has become a leading example of how Canadian philanthropy can contribute meaningfully to reconciliation for a better future.

TOP IMAGE: Members of ITK’s Atausiq Inuktut Titirausiq Task Group, which includes language specialists from each Inuit region. Lillian Elias appears to the right, wearing a floral coat. (ITK)


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