Bold new vision for Inuit education

By on November 1, 2011

‘Our vision is to graduate bilingual Inuit children with the skills and knowledge to contribute with pride and confidence to the 21st century.’-Mary Simon, national Inuit leader

Would you want to send your children to a school that has no respect for your language, values, culture, history and worldview-and makes them feel like outsiders in their own ancestral homeland?

Probably not.

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And yet, this is precisely the educational environment faced by Inuit parents and students in the traditional territory- and province-run school systems. Small wonder there’s a 75 per cent dropout rate.

This is about to change, however. This past June, a bold new blueprint for educating the youth of Canada’s far north was unveiled in Ottawa by Mary Simon, national Inuit leader and head of the advocacy organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK). ITK is the national voice of 55,000 Inuit living in 53 communities in four regions across the north in a vast region called Inuit Nunangat.

First Canadians, Canadian First: A National Strategy on Inuit Education (NSIE) is aimed at closing the education gap between Inuit students and other Canadian students. It does this in a way that engages Inuit parents and firmly embeds Inuit language, culture and history in young people while training them to meet the challenges of life in a post-modern world.

“The reality of Inuit education in Canada is that too many of our children are not attending school, too few are graduating and even some of our graduates are not equipped with an education that fully meets the Canadian standard,” says Simon in her chairperson’s message in the report. “Our vision is to graduate bilingual Inuit children with the skills and knowledge to contribute with pride and confidence to the 21st century.”

Following Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to indigenous peoples in 2008, an Inuit education summit meeting was held in Inuvik that same year. It brought together a broad range of Inuit stakeholders as well as representatives of the provincial and territorial education systems. “There really seems to be a dialogue happening across Canada on closing the achievement gap for aboriginals,” says Ottawa-based Udloriak Hanson, who served as special adviser to Mary Simon, NSIE’s chairperson, during the intense three years that led to the report’s release.

“With a 75 per cent dropout rate, it was obvious that these jurisdictions were-and still are-failing Inuit students,” says Hanson. Much more research needs to be done on the root causes of that dismal statistic, she adds. The report also identifies areas in which the federal government can invest. These include “supporting students, mobilizing parents and promoting research and early childhood education,” says Hanson.

In Nunavut, which is implementing its own Education Act, some of the report’s recommendations are already underway. “But we would like to see this done on a national level to create synergies across the four regions so they can enjoy the benefits of sharing Inuit culture and values,” Hanson says.

Every region is starting to do something to achieve Inuit-centred schooling, but to date, “no benchmarks or targets have been set,” says Hanson, conceding that more data and statistics are needed.

The next concrete step is to establish an overarching secretariat that will facilitate dialogue, research and the sharing of best practices among the regions. The secretariat will also establish an outreach program to engage disillusioned parents. “Many parents have no respect for the school system,” says Hanson.

One of the report’s exciting long-term recommendations is the establishment of a University of the North within the Inuit homeland so that post-secondary students do not have to go south for higher education.

Another long-term goal is a standardized written system for the Inuit language, which currently has several forms. A move to standardize written language made some years ago by the Greenland Inuit has helped stem the decline of the use of the Inuit language. And while the education plan will not directly involve Inuit living outside Canada, “there are important lessons to be learned from other jurisdictions,” notes Hanson. “There’s no sense reinventing the wheel,” she says. The first step is a conference scheduled for early 2012.

Ultimately, the revamping of Inuit education will fall not just to Inuit parents, advisers, politicians and community leaders but also to “corporations, foundations and other Canadians,” says Hanson. “It’s in everyone’s interest to work toward this.”

The National Strategy on Inuit Education (NSIE)

During two years of intense preparation, NSIE researchers consulted parents, youth, education leaders and policy specialists from across Inuit Nunangat and concluded that the key to improving educational outcomes for Inuit lies in three core areas:

  • supporting children to help them stay in school;
  • providing a bilingual curriculum to achieve literacy in the Inuit language and at least one of Canada’s two official languages;
  • providing learning resources relevant to Inuit culture, history and world view; and increasing the number of education leaders and bilingual educators in Inuit schools and early childhood programs.

The strategy seeks to get Inuit parents and guardians behind the new educational momentum. “We will need their continued support if we are to succeed in transforming our education systems,” NSIE chair Mary Simon points out. “No strategy will walk children to school, no strategy will ensure that children arrive in class well fed and well rested.”

She adds that any plan must restore the trust of parents deeply hurt by their own educational experiences. “We must build an education system grounded in the Inuit culture, history and world view, and with respect for the role of parents.”

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  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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