Features | Polar opposites

A summer in Nunavik teaches Graeme Burrows about Inuit education, and why many northern First Nations students aren’t pursuing postsecondary degrees

I held a large white board with the day’s schedule sloppily jotted in black marker and answered Michael’s question: “8:30 a.m.: Breakfast; 9:30 a.m.: Games; 11:00 a.m.: Fishing.” He’d pointed to the scrawled lines and asked me what they said. His eyes darted from my face to the board with a focused intensity as I read out each line, his finger idly picking at the large scab on his lip – the remnants of a recent bicycle accident. At ten years old, Michael is fluent in both English and Inuktitut, but still can’t read English or French. His literacy level is on par with that of most eight-year-olds, and many ten-year-olds, in Kuujjuaq – the largest town in Nunavik, a region of arctic Quebec.

This summer, I spent six weeks working at Kuujjuaq Youth Camp, and found that most children were illiterate in English – albeit bi- or trilingual in spoken English, French, and Inuktitut – and that many older youth were struggling to complete basic secondary degrees. What made this especially frustrating to a financially strapped student like myself is that the government sponsors postsecondary education for all Inuit residents of Nunavik. Transport, tuition, and boarding are all included. Now, as I watch the interest accumulate on my as-yet unpaid tuition – not to mention on the tens of thousands in loans – I begin to wonder just why the overwhelming majority of capable Inuit youth don’t take advantage of the free education they’re offered.

As an almost BA-holder, I figured I was clever enough to make an initial and spot-on assessment: the kids are not literate in English at ten, so are likely still behind by the time they finish high school. From there, the step up to CEGEP or university may not be feasible. The problem, I suspected, was rooted in the early years of education when Inuktitut was promoted and English neglected, which I soon would discover was a rather ethnocentric perspective.

In the current education system in Nunavik, kindergarten, first, and second grade are taught exclusively in Inuktitut. At third grade, parents may choose to enroll their child in either a French or an English program. So, by nine years old, most kids have had little to no instruction in English or French – Canada’s dominant languages – and have virtually no literacy skills in either. From the standpoint of getting ahead academically – and professionally – in an English or French world, this seems like a troubled system, perhaps even the fundamental problem preventing native students from cashing in on their free postsecondary education.

Dr. Donald Taylor, a professor of psychology at McGill, has worked extensively in the Inuit education field. Elucidating the evolution of the current Nunavik education system, he explains that before 1963, speaking, reading, or writing Inuktitut in the compulsory federal schools were punishable offenses. In 1963, the Quebec government established a more progressive provincial schooling system in the North to run parallel to the preexistent federal program. The key differences in the provincial system included Inuktitut development in the earliest years of schooling and training of Inuit teachers. Still, the Inuit had little say in the curriculum, and few people took advantage of the provincial system while the federal system endured.

The largest change, however, came in 1975 when the James Bay agreement mandated the formation of the Kativik school board, turning over complete control of the Nunavik school system to the Inuit. Immediately, it implemented an Inuktitut program for kindergarten in all communities but Kuujjuaq. In Kuujjuaq, there was a group of qalunaat (white people, literally “bushy eyebrows and big stomachs”) who had enough clout to keep French and English the only languages of instruction. This worried some members of the community, as Inuktitut, like 50 out of 53 other Canadian aboriginal languages, would surely disappear without a strong Inuktitut component in elementary education. One such concerned community member was Peter Bentley. Taylor describes him with a chuckle as an interesting guy and a “cynical son of a bitch.” Bentley became the principal in Kuujjuaq’s school, and decided that, according to Taylor, “over his dead body would Inuktitut not be in the schools.” Bentley confronted the anglophone and francophone communities, and succeeded in establishing an Inuktitut program to run alongside the other two options.

What Bentley realized was that without an Inuktitut program, Inuit culture would likely deteriorate and eventually be obliterated, like so many other native cultures in Canada. But how can this system justify the potential losses in English literacy that result from early Inuktitut education? According to Taylor, after years of research “the Inuktitut program was so overwhelmingly better for the kids that no parents would put their kids in English or French.” Taylor and other social scientists found the new system was better for self-esteem, group-esteem, and most importantly, linguistic development in Inuktitut, English, and French.

The Inuktitut program is clearly an essential and beneficial program, and is not preventing northern youth from pursuing further studies. While it may delay the onset of English or French education, the study found that students were undeniably better off academically with the Inuktitut program than without it. However, the Kativik school board still reports 261 students in kindergarten and only 53 in secondary five, the equivalent to 12th grade. So why are so few students finishing their degrees?

It seems to come down to the issue of cultural irrelevance. Learning among the Inuit has always been a flexible process of observation and imitation, and a formal education holds far less value in Kuujjuaq than it does in the South.

Jesse Jones, a mellow and down-to-earth Inuk woman in her early fifties, has taught Inuktitut, creative writing, and Nunavik history in Kuujjaq for 30 years. Asked if she thinks a formal education is fairly irrelevant in a northern context, she agrees completely: “You don’t need that much education…if you’re willing to learn just by watching; you don’t need to use books and all that, that’s our way of learning.” And it’s true. In Kuujjuaq, you just don’t need that much formal education to do just fine in the community; a secondary degree is sufficient to secure a fairly well-paying job, and getting a job without one his not an impossibility, although salaries increase based on the employee’s level of education.

Outside of the North, however, kids can’t compete for work without a degree or diploma. This poses a difficult dilemma for many northern native students. Leaving the North for school means leaving their culture and families behind, and facing a slew of unfamiliar cultural norms, values, and lifestyles. Jones explained that she travelled to Ottawa to attend high school because Kuujjuaq did not have one at the time. She had an absolutely terrible experience: “What was so scary for me was that I went to a huge school that had 1,500 students from grade nine to 13, and I was always getting lost. I had no friends, I mean, it was awful,” she emphasizes. Jones’s experience wasn’t encouraging. In fact, she decided to stop by the end of tenth grade. “I quit school and said I’d never go back inside a classroom again, but maybe six months later the school needed a teacher’s aide that could help out in the classroom, so I took it up,” she says. She’s been teaching since, and ultimately had no need for the formal degree Canadians often consider a necessity and a right.

Nevertheless, degrees are steadily gaining value in the North. The resource-rich land is not a secret, and many educated, non-native people are filling high-paying positions that could be going to individuals from the Inuit community. So, while a degree may not be essential yet, its relevancy is intensifying in places like Kuujjuaq.

Negative experiences in the South and the desire to stay near family seem to be the major reasons why Inuit students are less likely to pursue postsecondary education. Jojo Jones, Jesse Jones’s 27-year-old daughter echoes her mother’s thoughts on education, noting that most students would like to attend CEGEP or university, but can’t handle the transition to the southern lifestyle. Programs designed specifically for First Nations students, like the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre at John Abbot College, aim to help native students with the harsh transition. Michael O’Connor, a pedagogical counsellor at John Abbot’s Aboriginal Student Resource Centre explains that even with this program, only about 50 per cent of northern native students leave their communities to complete their degrees. As Jesse Jones notes, “some of these kids don’t even know what they’re up against. No wonder they’re given an orientation week just to get adjusted to the surroundings and all that hustle and bustle you deal with down there.”

The negative legacy of an abusive and racist education system in the North contributes to the aversion some students feel to leaving home for postsecondary. “Formal schooling as we know it is a foreign place. Moreover, many of their experiences with it have been not only negative, but extremely negative,” Taylor explains, referring to the experience of northern adults who were raised in a western-centric school system. The traumas that residential schools inflicted have not been forgotten, and the attempts at assimilation through western education systems imposed throughout the colonization of the North keep many northern native people at a cautious distance.

When the Kativik school board was formed, it recognized that addressing a lack of enthusiasm for conventional education among native youth by continuing to impose an incredibly western-centric system is counter-productive. While the Inuit-run Kativik school board has made vast progress, especially in the area of elementary education, the lack of northern students completing secondary school or moving on to postsecondary options has yet to be effectively addressed. It seems that the first step to encouraging youth to take advantage of a free education would be to increase its relevancy to their lives, both in curriculum and location. As Jojo Jones says, “Why would you waste a quarter of your life just for school, when you could be home helping out?”

If the Kativik school board and the Nunavik community can find a way to encourage youth to take advantage of government-sponsored postsecondary education, the next generation of Inuit can lead the arctic workforce in the way degree-holding southerners are doing now. The highest-paying jobs in resource exploitation and tourism go to the candidates with formal degrees.

Establishing a college in Nunavik, however, may be unrealistic. O’Connor points out that although many Inuit would like to have a local postsecondary school, it’s logistically unfeasible at this point. Staffing high schools with sufficient teachers is hard enough. Few people willing to live in isolated northern communities have the advanced degrees necessary to teach at undergraduate or graduate levels. Instead, O’Connor advocates a “full” college experience, one without the limitations of a small northern school. He insists that students should have access to the diversity of peers and rich ideas offered in southern schools. He thinks “it would be good if [northern schools] had a one year intensive program to qualify for their programs down South. Then they could start in the CEGEPs down here and be much more successful.” The program would ideally take place in a community like Amos, Chibougamou, or Val d’Or – towns many native students are familiar with – where the curriculum could work toward easing both the cultural and academic transition to CEGEP. A transitional program like this, if effective, could encourage students to finish their secondary degrees and move on to higher education.

When I asked one of the kids at camp what he wanted to do when he grew up, he shrugged and said, “Probably what I’m doing now.” I asked him what he did, surprised and envious that a ten-year-old already had a job he aimed to keep for life. He told me that he restocks pops in the machine at the local supermarket – a coveted job for many of the campers, I later learned. His answer disappointed me at the time. My self-righteous Western values identified an injustice, a lack of opportunity, a school system that forced kids to stay put and stock pops for life. What I should have understood, however, is that the boy was expressing exactly what he, and most residents of Kuujjuaq, really do seem to value: home. And the idea of home is not only family and location, but everything that makes up Inuit culture – above all, Inuktitut. The key to improving livelihoods in Nunavik, then, lies in the challenge of reconciling a profound love for home with the increasing need for postsecondary education that is not available there. The question remains as to whether a profound love of home can be reconciled with a northern job market that is starting to demand postsecondary education that, in the current system, must be acquired elsewhere.


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