When I first learned about the history of residential schools and how the children had been severed from their communities, language, and culture, I felt a kind of kinship with the Indigenous peoples. Growing up in colonial Hong Kong, I understand, to a certain degree, what it is like to not feel a sense of belonging or to have to speak and excel in a language other than my own. Of course, none of my colonial experience could compare to the abuses and cultural genocide that Indigenous peoples have endured.
I have recently had the privilege of working with some pedagogical consultants in the ᓄᓇᕕᒃ Nunavik to explore teaching and learning in a context involving multiple languages. As an external consultant, I treaded with much reverence and care, keeping my eyes, ears, and heart open to voices and silences and to alternative perspectives and worldviews. As McGrath (2018) reminds us, “knowledge is relational and therefore knowledge renewal is relationship renewal” (p. 313). Relationship is not only with people but also land to see how selves are intertwined with and constituting each other as well as knowledge.
When the airplane touched the ground of the “Grand Nord”, I couldn’t help but ruminate on the dark history of forced removal of the Inuit communities from their own land along with the colonial exploitation of their human and natural resources. Although I used to ease my conscience by telling myself that I came to Canada after the fact and that I had played no part in the imperial conquest of the previous centuries, part of me reckoned that neocolonial practices continued, such as in the ways how schooling is structured and what language/variety is taught and given priority and legitimacy. I must confess despite promoting critical literacy pedagogy in my second language teacher education courses, I had tended to lump Indigenous learners with learners with immigrant or refugee backgrounds. I used to take comfort in thinking that culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogies could similarly be applied to Indigenous education contexts, just as they do to historically marginalised learners such as immigrants or racially marginalized students. No doubt, there is overlap with some pedagogical methods, but in all honesty, it was my ignorance and lack of experience of working with/in Indigenous communities that had prevented me from engaging my student teachers further in deeper thinking about language teaching and learning in Indigenous contexts. Therefore, when this rare opportunity came, I grabbed it with my hands and heart and readied myself to be challenged to de-learn and re-learn.
My week-long visit there was immensely fruitful. After my initial contacts with the local school board personnel, teachers, and students, I quickly realised that the hard boundaries between first, second or third language did not apply there just as they often fall short in describing multilingual communities. Depending on individual families, education backgrounds and other sociocultural circumstances, students speak a mix of languages – Inuktitut (more precisely Inuttitut, an Inuktitut dialect spoken in Northern Quebec) and English, and some even French. English remained a dominant language given its long history of English settlement in the region since the 17th century. Francisation (including changing of place names and the spread of French education in schools) only began after the whole Ungava district was ceded to Quebec in 1912 (Rivet, 2021).
Many parents and children have complex relationships with the three languages. While there is much love and pride in the Inuit language and culture, competing desires for the languages of dominance (mostly English and increasingly French as well) could pose barriers to Inuktitut language preservation and revitalisation. Children’s and youth’s wide exposure to English-speaking entertainment and social media further complicates their search for linguistic and cultural identities and sense of belonging within both the physical and virtual spaces. Lack of trained teachers, whether in Inuktitut, English or French, makes it harder to promote concerted efforts to build critical language awareness. One Inuit educator divulged that despite knowing the importance of integrating traditional folklore and songs into the curriculum, she never had such knowledge and experience first-hand. Growing up, her parents chose not to pass them down to her as the priority was her mastery of the English language and culture. Further, being exposed to a decontextualized way of learning English and French in all her education, she is still finding her way to recentre people and land in her teaching of Inuktitut.
I have read and learned about these contradictions from the literature, but being there with the community and listening to their stories had touched me in visceral ways. Despite all the challenges, I saw a team of consultants and teachers across the three languages who were willing and ready to learn from each other and collaborate to support the younger Inuit generations in their search for their identities and futures. Thanks to their openness and generosity to me as an immigrant, I found myself embarking on this new journey of de-learning and co-learning with the educators there, to find ways to articulate language teaching and learning in “registers of care, hope and, love” (Heugh et al., 2021, p. 3) so that relationships can be re/built and language and cultures re/claimed and passed on. As my week-long visit came to an end, I looked forward to our future conversations to build more hopeful and livable worlds founded on reciprocity, humility, and responsibility.
Heugh, K., Stroud, C., Taylor-Leech, K., & De Costa, P. I. (Eds.). (2021). A Sociolinguistics of the South (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315208916.
McGrath, J. T. (2018). The qaggiq model: Toward a theory of Inuktut knowledge renewal. Nunavut Arctic College Media, Iqaluit.
Rivet, F. (2021). Nunavik. In The Canadian Encyclopedia.