“This school feels like ours now; it belongs to the community”: Engaging parents & Inuit educational leaders in policy change in Nunavut

Fiona Walton, Darlene O’Leary, Lena Metuq, Jukeepa Hainnu, Saa Pitsiulak, Elisapee Flaherty,
Nikki Eejeesiak, Jeeteetah Merkosak, & Kerri Wheatley

The National Strategy on Inuit Education 2011 identifies mobilizing parents and developing leaders in Inuit education as the first and second core investments “to improve outcomes in Inuit education” (National Committee on Inuit Education, p. 9). This article addresses both of these themes by describing findings from ArcticNet-funded research that engaged parents and Inuit educational leaders in Nunavut through partnerships with the Coalition of District Education Authorities in Nunavut (CDEAN) and the Nunavut Department of Education. The research project, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and the Transformation of High School Education in Nunavut, took place in 2009-2010, the first year of the Arctic- Net project, and was led by Fiona Walton, University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI), working with a team of Inuit researchers in Nunavut.

The two themes identified by the National Committee mentioned above strike to the core of educational change in Nunavut. In order for long-term change to take place, Inuit parents and educators need to take the lead in addressing the challenges raised in both the National Strategy, as well as the Nunavut Education Act (2008). Throughout the Education Act, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit is mentioned numerous times stressing that it is Inuit ways of knowing, social values, and languages that must guide the educational system into the future. Inuit educational leadership and parental engagement are required to accomplish these policy goals and ensure that the educational system provides a strong foundation for what it means to be Inuit in Nunavut in the 21st Century.

However, the majority of school leaders and teachers in Nunavut are non-Inuit (Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated [NTI], 2012, p. 20). Therefore, the responsibility for providing the kind of support that enables Inuit parents and educators to fully engage in education so that they take on leadership of the system also requires the full participation and support of non-Inuit educational leaders. In an educational system still emerging from a colonial past and providing evidence that colonizing effects remain influential (Walton, Tompkins & McAuley, 2005; McGregor, 2010, pp. 20-25), the challenges raised by the National Strategy, as well as the Nunavut Education Act, require very careful consideration.

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Research Approaches and Methodologies

The research described in this article focuses on the way that Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit provided a foundation for two Nunavut high schools during the 2010-2011 academic year: Quluaq School in Clyde River, where Jukeepa Hainnu was the school principal, and Attagoyuk Ilisarvik in Pangnirtung, where Lena Metuq and Cathy Lee acted as co-principals to lead the school. The research partnership with the CDEAN and the Nunavut Department of Education enabled researchers to collaboratively develop the questions that guided the high school research project.

Jukeepa Hainnu and Lena Metuq, both longterm Inuit principals and graduates of the Nunavut Master of Education (MEd) program offered by UPEI, acted as community research leaders and were joined by their colleagues and fellow MEd graduates, Saa Pitsiulak and Elisapee Flaherty, ensuring that Inuit researchers were leading and guiding the study primarily in Inuktitut. Jeeteetah Merkosak, who was then the Chair of the CDEAN, travelled to Clyde River and Pangnirtung to assist with the research. Saa Pitsiulak narrated in Inuktitut (with English subtitles) the documentary video resulting from the research, Going Places: Preparing Inuit High School Students for a Changing, Wider World (2011), produced by Gemini Award-winning filmmaker Mark Sandiford.

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Key Themes and Findings

The following themes highlight some of the key findings from the research. These themes are consistent with the first two core investments identified in the National Strategy on Inuit Education, and they draw on the experiences and voices of those directly affected by and involved in education in these schools.

Importance of parental and community engagement

The engagement of the community and parents by Inuit educational leaders was a vitally important key theme in this research. Jukeepa Hainnu commented:

I want [school] to be welcoming for people, everyone, no matter where one comes from. If people visit from outside, or especially for the Elders, I want them comfortable because formal schools are foreign to them. The school has to be welcoming because we are proud of Inuit and believe in them.

Daniel Jaypoody, who teaches shop and culturally- related programs, reinforces the importance of positive communication with parents,

The parents are our audience and [we need to] request their help on how we should improve the education system in our schools, and I really feel there is going to be so much more improvement. We must make communication an [ongoing] priority.

Jacob Jaypoody, the DEA Chair in Clyde River, provides a similar perspective, indicating that engagement of parents and community leads to encouraging students to keep working: “It’s encouragement that is so important now… Find other students who have finished high school who can be role models to them, come and talk to them of encouragement. Positive encouragement has to be the priority.”

In Pangnirtung, Lena Metuq echoed these insights:

We also need the support of the parents, and we need to support [the students’] parents, so that their children can finish their schooling and ask parents to encourage their children to be involved with social activities and be people persons. The only way to achieve [this] is that we work together as a team to teach them to be able to handle stressful situations that will come their way… Our young people have so much negative influence out there that can be self destructive and barriers they have to face and issues of suicide around them, and we have to teach them positive coping mechanisms to be able to handle stressful situations… We have always encouraged students to stay in school and that if they stay in school, they will have a brighter future after they finish high school; but we should go even further and give them hope.

The practices and approaches described by participants in this research included opening the school to the community and offering a wide variety of opportunities for positive interactions and relationship building. Some of these activities include breakfast programs, lunches for Elders, on-the-land programs, including spring camps and hunting, and assemblies and sports events. They also include welcoming parents on a daily basis, so they feel comfortable and are willing to contribute and engage in dialogue with teachers.

Importance of Inuit leadership

Participants in this research believe that Inuit leadership in schools can make a significant difference. In his interview, Shawn Sivugat, then a high school student in Clyde River, whose story is told in the documentary, Going Places, spoke of the transformation he has seen take place: “Now that we have an Inuk Principal, it seemed to have improved things….We learn our Inuit traditional values and principles, we would otherwise have had not a chance to learn.” Jacob Jaypoody agreed:

[W]e have seen a huge impact since we got an Inuk principal here… [L]ocal parents are more comfortable in coming here because they know her and will understand her. The ability to understand and speak to each other is the main factor for improvement in our community… [T]his school feels like ours now; it belongs to the community.

In Pangnirtung, DEA member Dr. Meeka Arnakak mentioned that when “someone wants to make a phone call to the school to ask questions, they can now talk directly to the principal and ask questions and be understood in your own language, and I think that is where there has been a lot of improvement.” Long-term Clyde River adult educator and DEA member, Loseosee Aipellee, believes that, “Ever since we hired an Inuk Principal, there have been a lot of changes for the better. Parents are majority Inuit and most students are Inuit. When they are having problems they can talk to someone. I feel that has helped a great deal.”

Having schools feel like they belong to the community is exactly what the Education Act in Nunavut and the National Strategy on Inuit Education are calling for, and this ethos and atmosphere is created by the approaches, strategies, and culturally-rooted behaviours that Inuit educational leaders can bring to schools. As bilingual members of the community who are respected trusted, and speak the same language as the parents, students, and staff, Inuit principals are uniquely positioned to implement the spirit and values of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit as a foundation for policies and practices. Jeeteetah Merkosak mentioned that, “Since we now get Inuit administrators, they know of the people because they are around them and surrounded by them all the time. These locals have really assisted others in using our first language and culture strongly.”

Inuit educational leaders interviewed in this research can connect with the members of the DEA who represent the community. They care about the future of students in a way that is based on a deep connection to Inuit values related to kinship and the promotion of health and well being of Inuit. This is particularly important when providing a nurturing and psychologically supportive educational environment to Inuit students. As Elder Dr. Meeka Arnakak comments when raising concerns related to the high rate of suicide among young people in the community:

[L]osing relatives, grief and death, has a major affect on them [students], we all know that now… Although I do not have children in school anymore, I often wonder where we can make improvements, because I have grandchildren. I have to think of my grandchildren’s future.

Inuit and non-Inuit educational leaders need to understand the high levels of warmth, empathy, understanding, and support that are associated with providing a psychologically nurturing education to students who are carrying the impact of significant losses.

Need for decolonized education

The research also revealed the need for education to become a decolonizing experience for students, parents, teachers, and members of the community. Though he stresses that change is now taking place, Bobby Joanas (a language specialist in Clyde River) reflects on the benefits of Inuit leadership based on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and reveals the way that non-Inuit may have behaved in the past:

I think it is very beneficial to have an Inuk Principal. It’s a big thing for us, especially since Inuit were intimidated by qallunaat, thinking they know everything and that they were the authority overall…

Even the way we look at hierarchy has changed, the qallunaat are not held in a higher level than they used to, just because of the color of their skin. As Inuit, we are not [a] lower sub-species, nor do we lack competence.

A decolonized educational system in Nunavut is reflected in the way that Inuit culture, languages, and ways of being become a central focus in schools. Loseosee Aipellee (DEA member), shares a belief that is supported by Nunavut Government legislation and policy:

We cannot lose our language; it’s our language. It’s a given that our Inuit mother tongue is the foundation of the Inuit cultural traditional values and principles; it’s our age-old culture… If we don’t practice what has been passed on to us by our Elders from our ancestors, we would have lost that vital information.

However, participants in the research are concerned that in order to maintain the language and culture, highly skilled and qualified Inuit teachers are required and the resources and curriculum to support teaching are necessary. Dr. Arnakaq advises:

To me, our Inuktitut oral language is the most valuable and important foundation of our values and beliefs, which is our ancient mother tongue. Even when we try to ask questions and respond in Inuktitut in our conversations, [Inuktitut teachers] do not understand what we are trying to say… Perhaps we will have to strengthen the content and benchmarks needed to determine the depth of comprehension levels of both languages, so that they will have acceptable levels of literacy in both languages, instead of learning bits and pieces.

Decolonization requires that Inuit and non-Inuit understand how important it is to learn about Inuit politics, struggles, and land-claim history, as well as the rights of Indigenous peoples, and be able to take on roles in the Nunavut Government that result in changes that integrate Inuit beliefs, practices, languages, and ways of life into education. Roposie Alivaktuk, an Inuit staff member in Pangnirtung, noted that:

One of my children had attended Nunavut Sivuniksavut after graduation and is the only one in my children who has learnt our Inuit identity through school. Our children are not learning anything about Nunavut Tungavik’s mandates and organizations like Kakivak and Inuit public governments that are run by Inuit. [These things] are not being learned by Grade 12 graduation.

He goes on to reflect on the importance of actively promoting and speaking out about Inuit identity and knowledge:

I want to make sure I [do] not keep quiet and make sure we implement what knowledge we have and be vigorous about teaching our traditional knowledge about critical life skills that have been omitted.

Dr. Arnakak reinforced the importance of changing the way Inuit students are perceived and encouraged. She believes that negativity affects the way students approach school, decreasing motivation and the desire to succeed in school.

If you put yourself in [the students’] shoes, it must be very bleak, so the attitude becomes: “Nunavuthas the lowest levels of everything, we will never catch up and we will never amount to anything, so: why bother anyway”…That’s why I try to help them visualize and encourage them to stay in school and try their best. That’s what I can visualize for the future, jobs available for them and have the qualifications necessary to get them.

It is evident in the testimony from these highly respected Elders, teachers, and community members that the school system needs to become a place where everyone believes in the capacity of the students to succeed academically and reflects that in their attitudes, relationships, actions, and words.

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Conclusion

In this short article, the authors have shared quotations from participants that support three of the dominant themes emerging from the analysis of interviews and focus groups. The words of participants carry important messages related to parent and community engagement, Inuit educational leadership, and decolonizing education in Nunavut as vital elements in the implementation of the Nunavut Education Act and the National Strategy on Inuit Education. Even when legislation and policy provide the basis for educational change, it is the principals, teachers, and other educators who must create an ethos in Nunavut schools to reflect the spirit of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit in the way students are treated.

In research conducted over more than 30 years, Jim Cummins has found that “relationships established in schools can be disempowering” (1996, p. 2), and this is particularly true in contexts where a damaging colonial history has caused intergenerational and ongoing trauma and loss that is reflected in suicide and low graduation rates. Relationships need to be welcoming, encouraging, and supportive, but also relevant and academically challenging so that the students are highly motivated to learn. A nurturing yet academically challenging educational environment also needs be offered in ways that lead to academic success in a bilingual and bicultural Indigenous context (Cummins, 2000). In closing, we offer Lena Metuq’s words from interviews conducted in 2009 and 2010, which capture the essence of the research findings we shared here:

The Education Act has empowered us to make changes; instead of just wishing that we could include Inuit cultural values and traditions in the school programs and repeatedly trying to communicate our needs to seemingly deaf ears. The Act stipulates that the Inuktitut language and culture will be the official language of Nunavut and that it is recognized as the workplace language within the government departments. It has become very beneficial to implement what we are trying to achieve and it has strengthened our Inuit culture… The Inuit cultural traditions should be way up there on par with other programs, our children have to learn their Inuit identity, traditional values, and beliefs, whether they are going to be working indoors or anywhere else. ◉



References

Cummins, J. (2001). Language, power and pedagogy: Bilingual classrooms in the crossfire. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Cummins, J. (1996). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society. Ontario, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.

McGregor, H. (2010). Inuit Education and Schools in the Eastern Arctic, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

National Committee on Inuit Education. (2011). First Canadians, Canadians First: National Strategy on Inuit Education 2011. Ottawa, ON: Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

Nunavut Education Act. S.Nu. ch.15 (2008). Iqaluit, NU: Government of Nunavut.

Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated. (2012). 2010-2011 Annual Report of the State of Inuit Culture and Society: The Status of Inuit Children and Youth in Nunavut. Iqaluit, NU: Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated.

Walton F., Tompkins, J. & McAuley, A. (2005). Pursuing a dream: Inuit Education in the Qikiqtani Region of Nunavut from 1980- 1999. Preliminary report on Iqaluit meetings. Unpublished report on SSHRC Northern Development Research. Authors.

Walton, F., Sandiford, M. (Producer), Metuq, L., Hainnu, J., Pitsiulak, S., Flaherty, E., Wheatley, K., & O’Leary, D. (2011). Going places: Preparing Inuit high school students for a changing, wider world. Documentary video. Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, PE. Available from www.nunavut.upei.ca/content/video-going-places