This year marks the beginning of the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages, a designation to recognize and celebrate Indigenous languages ​​and culture in Canada and around the world.

It is easy to see why this reconciliation effort is important. Canada’s residential school systems attempted to methodically destroy Indigenous children’s ties to their parents, grandparents, language and culture by penalizing them for speaking their native language. The result was the near extinction of many indigenous languages ​​and a sense of shame and restlessness that many former students took decades to overcome and heal.

But the systemic destruction of Indigenous languages ​​in Canada is not just a chapter in our past. In Nunavut, education policies pose an existential threat to the vibrancy of the Inuit language right now. In today’s schools, young Inuit in Nunavut have few opportunities to learn Inuktut — and are taught mostly only in English or French.

Unlike many Indigenous languages ​​silenced by colonialism, Inuktut is still a living language and is spoken by the majority of Inuit in Nunavut. However, the Inuktut rate is rapidly declining and will be critically endangered if the trend continues.

Much of the decline of Inuktut is due to the way students are educated in Nunavut. Some schools offer an Inuktut component up to grade 2; most do not offer Inuktut beyond fourth or fifth grade. School enrollment is compulsory until the age of 17, forcing students to spend the day learning in a language that is not their own for years.

The Inuit of Nunavut do not overlook the importance of bilingualism in education and expect graduates to also acquire Inuktut throughout high school. Language was central to the vision of Inuit self-determination that established Nunavut, and the Government of Nunavut is committed to increasing Inuktut education for all grades by 2019-20, through enactment of the Education Act in 2008.

The Government of Nunavut has broken this commitment and recently passed legislation to significantly reduce its responsibilities for Inuktut education. Instead, they will only offer Inuktut as a language course.

This weaker approach will negatively shape how Inuit think about and experience the world. Inuktut is an integral part of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit — traditional knowledge — as a living, breathing part of life, with the wealth of Inuit terminology and advanced knowledge related to relationships, land and sovereignty. Education without Inuktut threatens to destroy our sense of belonging and the ability of students to become capable, proud, productive and self-reliant Inuit youth in the modern world.

Many Inuit face poverty, inadequate housing and food insecurity due to the effects of colonialism. But just as language dispossession has created disadvantages and prejudices, the culture of Inuktut can create opportunities for academic success and improved achievement. Exploring the Inuit worldview in our own language can help young people develop cultural connections and the strength to become our next generation of leaders. To meet the challenges ahead, the Inuit of Nunavut need champions who can speak for Inuit, in our own words.

Downgrading Inuktut in arts classes is not acceptable and is deeply disappointing. Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated is suing the Government of Nunavut for systemic discrimination for the unequal way students learn Inuktut in schools.

Nunavut must learn from the Canadian heritage of education policies that deprived Aboriginal children of their culture. The International Decade of Indigenous Languages ​​should also be an opportunity to reflect on how governments can carry out their reconciliation efforts by protecting, promoting and revitalizing Indigenous languages. Immediate action can prevent the tragic repetition of Canadian history, before the loss of another precious Indigenous language.

We don’t think the path will be easy. But that’s what the Inuit deserve.

Aluki Kotierk is President of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which represents the Inuit of Nunavut. The organization recently filed a complaint under Section 15 of the Charter against the Government of Nunavut for language discrimination in schools.