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Legislation Enforces Use of Inuktitut

In a move reminiscent of laws that changed Quebec forever, the government of Nunavut has introduced language legislation that would enforce the use of Inuktitut in public places from restaurants to schools to offices.

"What we'd like to do here is protect the Inuit language for the future," said Louis Tapardjuk, minister of Culture, Language, Education and Youth.

"It will have an impact on all our children, families, communities, businesses, schools and governments."

Tapardjuk has introduced two language bills into the territorial legislature.

The Officials Languages Act declares French, English and Inuktitut to be Nunavut's official languages. The Inuit Language Protection Bill is intended to ensure the three languages remain on an equal footing by mandating the use of Inuktitut for signs and services.

The proposed law says organizations providing "essential services" would have to use Inuktitut signage "at least equally prominent with any other signage used."

However, essential services would include emergency services, health care, restaurants, hotels, utilities, telecommunications and other services deemed to be "essential as a result of their nature or consequences."

Tapardjuk acknowledges that covers almost everything in Nunavut.

"When we talk in terms of essential services it pretty well covers any hospitality industry as well as the retail sector. Any public or private institution will have to provide service to the public in Inuktitut as well as English or French."

The bill also maintains Inuit children have a right to be educated in Inuktitut, despite the shortage of curriculum materials in that language. It also provides for an office to determine official usages and coinages of new words.

Quebec's Bill 101, designed to govern the use of French in that province, was one of the inspirations for Nunavut's bill, said Tapardjuk.

"That was the direction Nunavut wanted to take," he said.

As in Quebec, Inuktitut is in danger of being swamped by English.

"If you go to a restaurant, you don't see a menu in Inuktitut. Everything's in English," Tapardjuk said.

"In the regional stores the majority of the customers are Inuk, but the majority of the signs are English. It makes you wonder who they're really serving."

If it becomes law, the act will be enforced by an arms-length language commissioner reporting directly to the legislature. The act would be enforced on a complaints basis.

Tapardjuk said penalties for breaking the act haven't yet been set.

A Statistics Canada study released last week found that Inuktitut is one of the healthiest aboriginal languages in the country.

More than half of Canada's 30,000 Inuit still consider it their mother tongue and it's the language spoken most often at home for 43 per cent of them. Still, those figures are declining and the young are least likely to be fluent.

Tapardjuk expects to hear concerns from the private sector.

"There are cost factors the private sector is quite concerned about."

However, he said, the Inuit Language Protection Bill is the result of two years of work and consultations, and more are scheduled.

Public meetings on the bill are to be held over the next weeks in five regions across Nunavut, but Tapardjuk expects the final legislation to return to the territorial legislature before the end of the current session.

Although the Northwest Territories recognizes 11 different aboriginal languages, nothing like Nunavut's proposed protections exist there. Tapardjuk says Nunavut's proposals may be unique in the world.

"We're not aware of any legislation like the Language Protection Act," he said. "The closest one we were able to see is Bill 101."

links: toronto star (source), cbc, and some french perspective)
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