Access to Justice for Deaf Persons in Nunavut: Focus on Signed Languages

Executive Summary

In a recent court case (R. v. Suwarak; 1999) in Nunavut Territory, the issue of providing sign language interpretation consistent with sections 14 and 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter) was raised. In the south, sign language interpretation using American Sign Language, ASL (for the English speaking community) and Langue des signes québécoise, LSQ, (for the French speaking community) are routinely provided by the courts to deaf persons who require it.

The issue that was confronted in this case was centred on the fact that the deaf man before the court did not know ASL nor LSQ. Consequently, no professional sign language interpreter could be provided. In addition, the deaf person had limited ability to speak, read or write. However, the deaf man did appear to have knowledge of a signing system which he apparently used with facility to communicate with people in his immediate environment. The current project was developed to determine how the Charter rights of a deaf person in this unique situation could be met. A further purpose was to obtain a preliminary estimate of the approximate number and characteristics of other persons who may be in a similar situation in Nunavut. An additional focus of the study was to provide a preliminary examination of the indigenous signing system which may be currently in use by deaf persons in Nunavut.

The methodology consisted of a telephone survey by a person who speaks Inuktitut and who has extensive experience in Nunavut. In addition, follow-up site visits were made by the principal contractor to three selected communities for the purpose of gaining information and background material on deafness and sign language, as well as for the purpose of recording actual sign language interactions on video-tape. The three communities chosen were Iqaluit, Pangnirtung and Rankin Inlet.

Based on the current study and on information from previous studies it is estimated that the prevalence of deafness (inner ear sensory-neural type) in Nunavut is 5.7/1000 of the population - which is five to six times greater than in the south Stamos-Destounis, 1993) . Based on the most recent estimates for the overall population of Nunavut of 27,039, it is estimated that the number of deaf persons is 155. A very preliminary estimate of the number who use some form of sign language other than ASL/LSQ is approximately 30%, or 47 for Nunavut Territory. It should be noted that the Nunavut Council for People with Disabilities (NCPD) has recently completed a survey of all disabilities including deafness (report of the Nunavut Council for People with Disabilities, 1999).

In terms of the status of the signed language(s) used by deaf persons in Nunavut, there is a strong indication that an indigenous form of sign language does exist. Observation and video recordings of sign language conversations in the three communities involving five deaf and approximately ten hearing users indicate that a very complex sign language system is used extensively. The sign system is clearly not ASL nor LSQ. Variations of ASL and forms of Manually Coded English (MCE) and fingerspelling of English were also noted. A preliminary analysis of various vocabulary items based on the linguistic corpus obtained suggests that expected dialectal variation exists between and within communities. However the underlying structure and visual-spatial-kinesthetic properties appear to be consistent with other signed languages and preliminary indications are that there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility among the various dialects noted.

In terms of narrative reports from family members, deaf people, and other interested stakeholders in the community, it seems clear that deaf people and the use of sign language are not stigmatized. Rather, a surprising number of hearing persons use the sign language. This appears to be in marked contrast to the situation that exists in the south where relatively few hearing people use sign language. It is hypothesized that signing is indigenous to the culture as a whole in the fashion that has been documented for many native peoples in North America and elsewhere.

From the point of view of the Charter issues which provided the stimulus for this study, it is apparent that the Nunavut deaf population uses a variety of signed languages - ranging from ASL, to Manually Coded English (MCE), fingerspelling of English and what appears to be an indigenous form of sign language.

The most pressing need now is to examine the feasibility of developing a court interpreter training program which addresses the linguistic situation of the deaf people of Nunavut. Preliminary indications suggest that the existing program at Arctic College could be expanded to include training in signed languages by drawing on the expertise of the relatively large number of hearing signers in Nunavut as well as the expertise of the deaf community itself.

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