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Remarks to Delegates at the Summit on Inuit Education by Mary Simon, President, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

by NationTalk on April 16, 2008689 Views

‘Toward a National Strategy on Inuit Education’

April 15, 2008
Inuvik, NWT

Thank you, Nellie for that kind introduction and warm welcome. It is wonderful to be back here in Inuvik.

Before I begin my remarks today, I want to pay special tribute to my friend Nellie Cournoyea who last night received the Governor General’s Northern Medal in recognition of her enormous contribution to her community and this region, and to the Northwest Territories and Canada. I am delighted that the occasion for Nellie receiving this medal coincided with the ITK Summit on Inuit Education – because Nellie’s story is about hope and possibility – the two words we want our children to grab hold of through education.I would also like to recognize a few distinguished guests who have joined us here today from across the Arctic, specifically our elder delegates:

Mark Kalluak from Arviat
David Nasogaluak from Tuktoyaktuk

Finally, I want to pay tribute to all of our delegates here today – the community leaders, educators, practitioners,

government policy specialists and program partners. You have traveled great distances – from Canada’s four Inuit regions, from across southern Canada, and from as far away as New Zealand.

You are here to talk about hope….because our schools and day cares should be about hope, and about transforming our communities through our educated children.


I have been thinking and talking about education for along time.

When I was a young girl growing up in Kangirsualuujuaq, northern Quebec we lived our traditional lifestyle, living in a unilingual Inuit community, travelling only by dog team, always out hunting fishing and gathering for our food. This experience grounded me in my culture and language throughout my life time.

When I reached 6 years of age our family moved to Kuujjuaq so that we could start school.

Few of us here today need reminding that Inuit have a rich history in education – a heritage that is based on knowledge being passed from generation to generation through watching and learning from our elders.

Our values… our beliefs… our teaching methods…. were our way of living … all inter-connected in our everyday life. In our traditional education, our Inuit language was at the heart of it – because it was an oral education.

When we were living in the bush in a tent with the wood stove blaring hot, my grandmother Jeannie would teach us all the legends of the Inuit culture and history. She also taught how family ties and relationships were at the core of Inuit culture. She made sure that, as her grandchildren, we were taught who our relatives were no matter where they lived in the Arctic.

Then, at age of 7 I was introduced to a federal day school in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik.

I am sure that many of you in this room can recall vividly your early days in similar schools. The buildings were strange, the rules were something we had never encountered before, and the teaching methods were totally foreign to us.

At school, whether it was in the classroom or playing outside in the school yard, we were not allowed to speak our Inuit language on school property.

We were punished if we were “caught” talking to our friends in Inuktitut (the only language we could communicate with!)

When you think about these moments, it is understandable why some Inuit parents today have hurtful memories of their school experiences and are distrustful of our education systems. Our language, our culture and the Inuit worldview had no place in those schools.

Unfortunately, there are also Inuit who faced terrible experiences in residential schools, and this legacy cannot

be ignored when examining the challenges we have today in building a healthy Inuit education system. With the recent conclusion of the residential school settlement, the healing process for this tragic period in Inuit education has begun for some.

The residential school settlement has also created an unprecedented challenge for us. It signifies the beginning of a new era in Inuit education and we must make the most of this opportunity.

The Residential school experience is not often recognized by observers of our educational system as a major factor in the unacceptable drop-out rates for Inuit in high school.

At the same time, it must also be pointed out that a large number of Inuit across the north acknowledge that the residential school system, particularly at the Churchill Vocational Training Centre, provided them with an education, training and life skills that are valuable to this day.

Yet, within this confusing and sometimes contradictory history of Inuit education lies one truth. We must regain the trust of parents who, because of the residential school experience, turned their back on the education system for their children.


As I said at the outset, I have been thinking about education for many years.

I re-iterate this, because I want you to know how important it is to me, and to Inuit, to have all of you here – for the first time – to discuss the future for Inuit education.

And first and foremost, we must recognize that at the core of a healthy Inuit education system lies our language and cultural distinctiveness.

In 1996 after being appointed by Prime Minister Chretien to negotiate the formation of a council made up of eight circumpolar countries, now known as the Arctic Council, I tried very hard as Chair, to convince my fellow Council members that Children and Youth (by extension education) must be a priority.

Regrettably, children and youth issues were given only passing attention – very few resources were made available to inject new life into circumpolar children and youth issues.

The challenges facing Inuit in a western designed education system were already evident back then. We knew, for example, that there was a significant ‘education gap’ between Canadian Inuit and other Canadians and that less than a quarter (25%) of Inuit who started school, graduated at the other end.

So, a few years ago, when I became a Board member of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation and saw the great work that they were doing in projects that were transforming education systems across Canada, I started thinking that here again, was an opportunity to elevate the story of Inuit education to a national level. The hopes and aspirations of Inuit to have an education system that produces skilled and knowledgeable young people, is a story that needs to be heard and acted on at a national level.

There comes a moment when it is clear what must be done. And that is why you have been invited here this week.

I want to thank the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation for their strong support for this first ever National Summit on Inuit Education because their involvement has made an idea become a reality.

Appreciation and a thank you must also go to three other important organizations that have provided ITK with consistent support for this Summit: the Inuit Relations Secretariat, the Canadian Council on Learning and the Aboriginal Learning Knowledge Centre, all of whom have representatives here this week.

This Summit is the 2nd phase of a 3 phase initiative by ITK in education. Earlier this year we released the results of Phase 1 of this initiative in the form of 4 background papers on Inuit education. Summaries of these reports are available in your conference package and the full reports are available from ITK.

The 3rd phase of ITK’s education initiative will be the development and release of a National Strategy on Inuit Education, much of which will be drawn from the results of our discussions this week.

So you can see that in many ways this Summit is making a little history. We have finally gathered together in one room – Inuit education practitioners, education policy specialists, educational leaders and education experts, to define a path forward for our children’s education.


In thinking about how this Summit should be designed it was important to me that we avoid some of the popular myths about Inuit education.

First, I think that because of our low graduation rates, there is a misconception that the Inuit education system is complete mess. In my travels across the north I have seen that this is simply not the case.

It is precisely because we have success stories in Inuit run-day cares, and with Inuit designed curriculum, with Inuit teacher training programs, and Inuit language programs, that this Summit is designed not to focus on problems, but to hear about our successes – share them – and build on them.

The second misconception that I want to clear up is that we don’t have one Inuit education system – we have four Inuit education systems across two territories and two provinces. As you know K-12 education is under provincial/territorial jurisdiction, so each jurisdiction approaches their education system with unique legislation, policies and standards.

The Federal government also plays a role in our education system through their commitment to lifelong learning in early childhood education and in hundreds of federal government programs that address lifelong learning through capacity building, networking, research, aboriginal languages, and health, to name just a few.

All of these programs are used differently in each Inuit region to build a web of provincial/territorial and federal partnerships in support of education.

So the design of this Summit has been developed with these two points in mind – first, that there are numerous success stories in Inuit education in practice today that we need to know about, share, and build on – and, secondly, that the Inuit education system is built from a network of federal, provincial and Inuit partners that interpret education needs differently across the 2 provinces and 2 territories, and we must be mindful that each Inuit region has a different set of circumstances, and different capacities in education.

It is for these reasons that the planning for this Summit has followed a somewhat lengthy, but very inclusive process, under the direction of an Education Advisory Group made up of education officials from the four territories and provinces, representatives from the Inuit organizations, and representatives from our three funding sources.

And thanks to funding provided by the Canadian Council and Learning and Inuit Relations Secretariat we have also been able to put together pre-summit working groups for each of the six Summit themes.

Over 35 people representing many of the delegations here today have been busy over the last six weeks, examining the issues surrounding each theme and developing the key questions that need to be discussed at this Summit.

I want to thank each and every one of you who took time out of your busy days to participate in these working groups.


So before we get on with the Summit, I would like to raise a few ideas for you to consider in your deliberations this week.

The first and most important idea that I want to place before you today is that this Summit presents an opportunity – not just to improve our Inuit education systems – but – to transform our education systems through a common purpose.

Many of us here agree that there continues to be enormous problems and challenges that lie within our education system and we need to focus on workable and realistic solutions immediately.

At the same time we must recognize the ‘transformations’ that are occurring before our very eyes as we watch our children effortlessly navigate the Internet and download information we never conceived of knowing only a few years ago… and we must build on this. Our children are experiencing a world first hand that we had only glimpses of when we were young, and as a result, they will have opportunities to play a significant part in this world.

So, to settle for anything less than a transformation in our education system would be settling for less than what our children are already experiencing in their world. This constantly evolving landscape of learning for our children demands that we show the will, and the leadership, to achieve workable and realistic changes immediately.

The second thing that became evident as we were developing the themes for the Summit was how little Inuit educators and specialists in one region talked with Inuit in another region about their best practices.

Sharing has been a value that has been at the core of Inuit survival, and yet because we are now spread across 2 provinces and 2 territories we have sometimes forgotten to share what we know with each other. This must change.

Let this Summit mark the beginning of a new era in pan-Inuit education initiatives. I challenge all of you, whether you are federal government representatives, or educators, academics or policy specialists – to use these next few days to generate collaborations, or partnerships or initiatives that can make a difference to our education systems.

As we will learn this week, there are extraordinary things happening in our day care centres and schools in this and other regions; there are major new initiatives in legislation and policy happening in Nunavut, and there are 25 years of experience to draw from in Nunavik.

Think how important the value of sharing could be to our new and fledgling Inuit government in Nunatsiavut, who are just beginning to build their education system.

The third and final idea I want to briefly discuss is the value of having a National Strategy on Inuit Education result from this Summit. As I said earlier, Inuit want an education system comparable to the best systems in

Canada, with skilled and knowledgeable young people emerging from our schools.

This is a goal that all Canadians need to know about. A National Strategy on Inuit Education will be a platform to communicate this message.

A national strategy would not tell provinces and territories, who are responsible for many aspects of lifelong learning, what to do.

Rather, a national strategy would speak to the possibilities of what could be, if we worked at all levels, and across all jurisdictions on a common purpose…a common purpose in building Inuit capacity in our day cares and schools, in developing a bilingual education system, in building an Inuit-centred curriculum, in mobilizing our partners in education, in strengthening our post-secondary systems, and in undertaking the research needed to invest in best practices.


Inuit have reached a threshold not seen before in our modern history. We now have settled land claims in all four of our regions.

We have variously structured Inuit governments, Inuit school boards and unprecedented opportunities to influence and direct how our education systems will work.

We must get up everyday and use these tools – so our children’s generation become the best educated in modern Inuit history.

I imagine a day when we can attend graduation ceremonies in communities across this country – where bilingual Inuit graduates will be bursting with pride in their achievements, grounded in their Inuit heritage, conversant in their land claims agreement, and adept at using the information technologies at their disposal to embark on a future that has unlimited potential – whether it is in transforming our own communities or seeking opportunities throughout the world.

This positive image of the future begins today with positive actions.

Let us begin.

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