House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage 0n Bill C-91, February 25, 2019
President Obed’s opening remarks (check against delivery):
Inuit are one people sharing a common language, Inuktut. The majority of our people live in 51 communities throughout Inuit Nunangat, our homeland.
Inuit Nunangat is a distinct geographic, political, and cultural region that makes up nearly one-third of Canada’s landmass and half of its coastline.
Eighty four percent of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat report an ability to speak Inuktut, making our language the most resilient indigenous language in Canada.
However, a more complex picture of our language status emerges when considering conversational ability and language of the household: 58 percent of Inuit within Inuit Nunangat report being able to speak Inuktut well enough to conduct a conversation, and only 40 percent report that Inuktut is the language used most often at home.
Inuktut has official language status in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. In Nunavut, the rights of Inuktut speakers are further affirmed by the Inuit Language Protection Act. Inuktut has official language status in the self-governing region of Nunatsiavut in Newfoundland and Labrador as well.
National legislation is needed to build on existing rights for our language and to complement initiatives advanced by territorial governments and Inuit throughout Inuit Nunangat.
ITK therefore recognizes the positive role national legislation can play in closing statutory and policy gaps that enable continued discrimination against Inuktut speakers.
The specific nature of this discrimination and its consequential, negative impacts on the day-to-day lives of Inuktut speakers is detailed in ITK’s written submission to this committee.
Bill C-91 currently falls far short of fulfilling the Government of Canada’s own commitment to develop distinctions-based legislation. In fact, it was on the basis of this commitment that ITK agreed to participate in this legislative initiative.
In the joint statement released when this legislative initiative was launched on June 15, 2017, all parties agreed to, quote, “Work collaboratively, transparently and on a distinctions-basis to co-develop national First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation languages legislation whose content will reflect the distinct geographic, political, legislative, and cultural contexts impacting language revitalization…maintenance…and promotion.”
Yet Bill C-91 as it is currently drafted completely overlooks the unique status of Inuktut and the practical needs of its speakers.
In the absence of Inuktut-specific provisions within Bill C-91, ITK is therefore proposing amendments to the bill that would help ensure that our longstanding priorities for our language are reflected in the bill.
Indeed, remedying these problems has been a national Inuit priority for more than half a century. ITK was formed in 1971 in large part to advance the statutory and policy measures required to help revitalize, maintain, and promote our language.
These amendments are necessary to fulfill the federal government’s commitment to indigenous peoples and all Canadians to develop distinctions-based legislation. They would ensure that our people are able to enjoy the human rights and fundamental freedoms that all peoples are entitled to, including in the political, economic, social, cultural and other fields of public life.
In our submission to this committee, ITK has therefore proposed amendments to Bill C-91 that would obligate the Minister to develop a separate annex to this Act in relation to Inuktut.
This annex could include provisions addressing the following areas, among others: use of Inuktut in the delivery of federal programs and services; use of Inuktut in the federal public service; standards to govern federal financial support for Inuktut and specific levels of support; and measures to support the provision of Inuktut language programs and services in relation to education, health, and the administration of justice.
The amendments to Bill C-91 that we are proposing are consistent with documents and input provided by Inuit to the Minister of Canadian Heritage throughout the past two years.
They are also aligned with the federal government’s own priorities, particularly in the area of access to federal services for Inuktut speakers.
Inuit face consequential linguistic barriers when it comes to accessing public services, especially within the majority Inuktut speaking regions of Nunavut and Nunavik.
This problem is particularly acute in law enforcement, where the limited number of Inuktut speaking RCMP officers contributes to underreporting of violent crime, and family violence in particular.
Furthermore, the Senate Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans reported in 2018 on the risks to public safety that exist as a result of the limited number of Inuktut speakers within the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG). The Committee has recommended that the Canadian Coast Guard recruit people who speak Inuktut.
Similar barriers are well documented within Quebec’s provincial justice system.
The federal government’s unwillingness to provide services in Inuktut within Inuit Nunangat, has even served to undermine the federal government’s ability to discharge its duty to consult and accommodate Inuit.
Such was the case in 2017 when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favor of the Nunavut community of Clyde River, and found the National Energy Board’s consultation process on seismic testing in the area flawed for, among other reasons, failing to communicate with Inuit in our primary language.
ITK urges this committee to take concrete action to address these longstanding problems by adopting the amendments we are proposing today. These proposed amendments – so necessary to the enjoyment of dignity among our people – are modest in comparison to the rights enjoyed by speakers of Canada’s two official languages, both within our homeland and throughout the country.
Inuit are looking to each of you to demonstrate the creativity and political courage needed to help us end the discrimination too many Inuktut speakers face in going about their day-to-day lives, and to replace symbolism with effective and impactful federal support for efforts to strengthen and revitalize our language throughout Inuit Nunangat.