Strengthening the Nunavut Educational System

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By Norma Dunning

In Canada there is an educational crisis. Within Nunavut the attrition rates of Inuk high school students is 51%.[i] The Inuit population is just under 60,000, making this a national disaster. Out of the three recognized Aboriginal groups Inuit remain at the lowest end of academic success. Within this country, in 2011, there were a total of forty Inuk PhD holders, twenty of whom are medical doctors.[ii] This number alone points to a system that is essentially flawed. My doctoral research examines the implementation of Inuit epistemology into Nunavut schools as the most logical way of strengthening the educational system. Educational policy input by both Inuk students and parents using their inherent ways of knowing and being will bring parity to Inuit communities within a system that has clearly proved itself to be ineffective.

On December 8, 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a “significant investment” towards First Nation Education. Indeed, during the course of the Liberal electoral campaign they promised funding of $2.6 billion over four years with an additional $500 million that would be funnelled into educational infrastructure. I caution Canadians to keep in mind that none of this money will be used in the area of Inuit or Métis education. This educational investment is exclusive to First Nations peoples. I do not say this with envy. I say this as most Canadians have historically and currently lump Inuit in with First Nations. Inuit are distinct. This distinction is something that was hard fought for, in the past Inuit were considered to be another brand of Indian.

Historically the Canadian government grappled with the identity of the Inuit, questioning how to legislate their identity. In 1924, the Indian Act was amended to include Inuit within the act as citizens of Canada – not wards of the state.[iii] Unlike First Nations, Inuit had the same rights and access to social benefits in the areas of health and education as mainstream society. This included the right to vote federally and to pay all taxes. The benefits extended to Inuit were cared for through various bureaucratic branches including an Eskimo Affairs Committee. It is not until 1951 that the Indian Act was further amended, removing the Inuit from the Act permanently.

The most compelling definition of the word ‘Eskimo’ is the 1939 Supreme Court of Canada case. This lawsuit initiated by the province of Quebec asked the question, “Are Eskimos Indians?” Lawyer Auguste Desilets stated that:

…it was clear that ‘Eskimos’ were exactly like Indians. Both groups exhibited …the same dependence upon fish and game for subsistence, the same lack of any organization for agriculture and industrial production, the same absence for exchange of wealth by way of money, the same poverty, the same ignorance, the same unhygienic mode of existence.[iv]

Into present day, Inuit remain without a government-imposed definition in comparison to Indian and Métis peoples. This may help to explain the government’s lack of responsibility and commitment towards educating the Inuit population. The Government of Canada did not assume the responsibility of educating Inuit citizens until 1955. ‘Formal’ education in the North was provided by mission schools and, from the government’s point of view, there seemed little reason to do more. Again, it was a question of keeping the native native. Why give Inuit children a white-oriented education when, for the foreseeable future, they would just be fur-trappers? Bureaucrats believed Inuit did not have the capacity to learn, that the, “mental capacity to assimilate academic training is limited.”[v]

The historical assumption by bureaucrats is simple – Inuit do not have the intellectual capacity to learn so why make the effort? Sixty years later, I wonder is this still the thinking on the part of bureaucrats and policy makers within Nunavut.

Placing a southern-based curriculum and value system into Inuit classrooms, as non-Inuktitut speaking educators taught Euro-centric concepts to Inuit students who were completely unfamiliar with functioning in an English-based, individual success value system, founded on meritocracy did not work. The language and Eurocentric principles were unfamiliar, thereby setting up the Inuk student to fail. Placing an Inuit child, who is raised to work at a task until exhausted, to not ask questions of Elders, because knowledge holders speak when they chose to, not when prompted to, and to place this Inuk child in a desk with the academic expectations of an unfamiliar ideology, sets the Inuk child up for failure. Further, the intergenerational influence of residential schools and day schools, the earliest forms of formal education, and the effects of which continue to be felt in Nunavut allows one to have a better grasp on the present day statistical relationship that Inuit have with education.

My research examines how to make this right. In order to right a wrong, one has to have a historical understanding of the issue. Statistics are only representations of people; they are not the people themselves. This must be remembered. It is through my own Inuit epistemology that my research will be compiled and interpreted. My hope is that education policy will be changed and that the Inuk child will have the same opportunity at gaining an education that provides her/him with the chance that every Canadian deserves personally and intellectually. The future for Inuit in Nunavut is dependent on completing high school and moving forward with confidence into a post-secondary experience of every Inuk child’s choice.

Norma Dunning is an Inuk writer, scholar and a PhD student with Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta. Her research examines the high attrition rates of high school students within the territory of Nunavut. Her research application to the Trudeau Foundation was recently one of six entries to be moved to the national level representing the University of Alberta.



[i] This is based on the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) Aboriginal People

[ii] 2011 National Household Survey Table 15

[iii] Bonesteel, S. (2006) Canada’s Relationship with the Inuit: A History of Program and Policy  Development found at:

[iv] Supreme Court of Canada Ruling found at:

[v] Diubaldo, R.J. A Historic Overview of Government-Inuit Relations 1900-1980’s. Montreal,            Concordia University


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