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



4.1 Telephone Survey

Our telephone survey reached twenty of the twenty-six communities and positively identified deaf individuals (adults) in many of them including Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Coral Harbour, Pangnirtung, Arctic Bay, Cape Dorset, Clyde River and Baker Lake, Cambridge Bay and Taloyoak. One methodological difficulty encountered was that, in most cases, questions about age, hearing loss etc. were considered personal and there was reluctance to give this information "for the record". Moreover, issues of confidentiality in some small communities preclude detailed reporting in some cases. For these reasons, only general information based on these interviews is presented here.

There was an indication that in each of these twenty communities there were a number of deaf persons. There was at least one deaf person who used sign language and across communities there were many who had not attended school in the south, or did so a on a limited basis. In a number of cases deaf people and their families were eager to provide information and a good deal of narrative information and history was obtained in the telephone survey.

Six individuals who were positively identified as having an indigenous sign language were considered potential interview subjects. Apparently they did not have any knowledge of any other sign language such as ASL. Ten additional individuals who went south and knew some form of ASL or at least finger-spelling were identified from various communities. In virtually all the cases where information was obtained by telephone there was a clear indication that an extensive network of extended family and friends were frequent users of the sign language. In Baker Lake, for example, one knowledgeable hearing signer estimated the number of hearing signers of the indigenous language to be about 75% of the total population. Furthermore, there was little or no evidence of "social stigma" associated with deafness in the communities we contacted and there was no apparent social exclusion because of deafness. In terms of the actual nature of sign language being used, the reports were mixed between some form of ASL or Manually Coded English for those who attended school in the south, to ASL with an indigenous language, to an indigenous language alone (especially for older deaf persons in the more remote communities).

The information from the telephone survey, along with statistical information from a previous study of sensory-neural deafness in the Baffin Region (Stamos-Destounis, 1993) produced an estimate of 5.7/1000 persons of the total population being deaf. The most recent estimate of the general population in Nunavut is 27,039 (Nunavut Bureau of Statistics, 2000). Thus the overall number of deaf persons is estimated at just over 150. A very preliminary estimate of the numbers of deaf persons who did not go south for education and who therefore most likely do not use ASL is 30% of the overall total, or approximately 50. This number must be interpreted with caution since the linguistic situation of signing deaf people in Nunavut is extremely complex. Furthermore the methodology used in the study does lend itself to a definitive statement of numbers.[2]

The Nunavut Council for People with Disabilities (NCPD) has recently completed a survey of disabilities, including deafness, in all twenty-six communities (Nunavut Council for People with Disabilities, 1999). However their study grouped all persons with hearing loss with those who have speaking difficulties. No indication was given of the use of sign language among deaf people. The issue of the determination of the exact numbers of deaf persons who use sign language as their primary means of communication remains for a future study. One of the most promising aspects of the present situation is that there are now at least two agencies, the NCPD and the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics, that will be taking responsibility for establishing and tracking the numbers of persons with disability in Nunavut (Internet address is provided following References).

One further point of interest is that we identified three cases where deaf people had become involved with the justice system as victims and in all cases family members had to interpret in court for their deaf relatives.

Furthermore, a number of families spoke of the anguish of their deaf relatives having to "go south" as children and the difficulties that they had reintegrating in the north. Virtually all lamented the lack of educational and employment opportunities in their communities.

4.2 Interviews in the field

As mentioned above, based on what we had already learned, our methodology for our videotaped interviews in the field changed to obtaining a "a linguistic corpus" of naturalistic conversations in sign which would give an indication of the range and complexity of the sign languages being used. In these field visits it became obvious that "home sign" per se was not an issue in the northern context. Family members overwhelmingly stated that they started using sign with their deaf children at the moment of identification of deafness (provided there were no other interventions).

Three of the six individuals who were positively identified as having an indigenous sign language, and who apparently did not have any knowledge of any other sign language such as ASL were followed up for personal visits and video taping; one in each of the communities of Iqaluit, Pangnirtang, and Rankin Inlet.

4.2.1 Iqaluit

Suwarak, the deaf person whom we interviewed in Iqaluit was the man from Baker Lake who was the stimulus for the present project. To recap his situation, he entered a guilty plea to a charge and was moved from Baker Lake to Iqaluit where he was placed in the Baffin Correction Centre (BCC). There he was enrolled in a rehabilitation and educational program. A key element of his program was for his friend from Baker Lake, who knew sign language, to move to Iqaluit to act as his paid interpreter for the rehabilitation, educational and job placement programs. Instituting this program was very complex and involved the cooperation of many agencies in both the public and private sectors. Arctic College also created a special literacy program for him as part of his overall rehabilitation program.

Direct evidence of his language abilities were captured on video-tape. By coincidence, the deaf man’s brother was visiting Iqaluit during the time of my visit. When I was previously in Baker Lake for the original court evaluation it had been established that this particular brother was the most skilled user of the deaf man’s signed language. Suwarak and his brother allowed us to tape the initial interaction between them. They had not seen each other in over two years and their motivation for communication was very high. The translation of the signed conversation was provided by his brother at a subsequent meeting to view the taped interaction. Selected vocabulary items are available in Appendix A.

The vocabulary items provide an indication of discussion on a wide range of topics revolving around a recounting of events that had happened in Baker Lake over the past year and also a description of events involving the deaf man’s experiences in Iqaluit. I was also able to interact with the deaf man through the interpreter and by using some signs in his language that I had learned. The literacy program was discussed, future plans, the rehabilitation program, and our shared experiences on a hunting trip in Baker Lake which had taken place over two years ago. I found no impediment to communication. My overall impression was of communication with a deaf man from another country who had a foreign sign language.

4.2.2 Rankin Inlet

We were able to interact extensively with two families with deaf persons in Rankin Inlet.

Rankin Inlet: First family

The first family included a 58 year old deaf man who is married to a hearing woman, and they have three hearing children living with them in their home. His friend, an Inuktitut interpreter, acted as our source of information and as an interpreter. Selected vocabulary from this interview is attached as Appendix B (First Family).

The interpreter indicated that his family and the deaf man’s family were long time friends and that he knew many people in the community, including other family members, who could communicate with the deaf man. He also knew of elders from a previous generation who were deaf and used sign language. He expressed the opinion that the sign language used in Nunavut is a "real" language that has its roots in Inuit history and culture. He reported that he observed many elders who were experiencing difficulties with hearing loss (presumably due to aging and middle ear disease) using an indigenous form of sign language. He also expressed the view that when hearing Inuit met other Inuit who used different spoken dialects they would immediately use sign to communicate. He said he had heard this situation discussed many times by the elders.

A wide range of topics was discussed with the deaf participant - from hunting and fishing, to the use of the snow machine, to family matters, to working in the community and other general topics. It was clear during the conversations that his wife was a very fluent signer and his children could sign with him as well. All indications were that the deaf man was able to carry on a normal family life and that his signing system was known by many, if not all, of the people with whom he regularly interacted. The degree of expertise of people remote from the family was not clear. What did seem clear was that there was little, if any, stigma attached to deafness or the use of sign language.

The deaf man had a deaf brother who had recently passed away. Information from the interpreter and from the deaf man indicated that the signing between the two brothers had been very fluent. The signing between the brothers was in fact the subject of a documentary video which was done in the 1970's by the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC)[3] .

There can be no doubt that this man has a "real" language. He would have used it from the time of his infancy and all accounts are that his family encouraged and used the sign language as well. All the known conditions for language development were present (see Endnote 2, especially Goldin-Meadow and Mylander, 1994).

Rankin Inlet: Second family

The second family participating in Rankin Inlet consisted of the mother and father (elders) who have a family of thirteen, including five grown deaf children. The father is a retired hunter and employee of the local power corporation. The story of the deaf children has been told by the mother as part of a radio interview for the CBC (see transcript in Appendix D).

Two of her deaf children went south to school and three stayed in the north. My interaction was with 3 brothers; two who had stayed in the north for school and one who had gone south. The oldest sister was away on holidays and the other deaf sister was not present during the taping. Selected vocabulary from this interview is attached as Appendix B (Second Family).

The three deaf brothers in the family all used fingerspelling (of English) extensively and they also used a dialect of ASL and some Manually Coded English (MCE). They also used an indigenous form of sign language to communicate with their parents (who only know Inuktitut), and, of special note, to the deaf man from the first family who accompanied us on our visit to this second family. The language situation in the second family is very complex with the existence of Inuktitut, English, ASL, fingerspelling, an indigenous sign language and possibly some combination of all of the above.

I had no difficulty communicating with the brothers. All of the hearing people in their family can sign and deafness and the use of sign does not seem to carry any stigma whatsoever. Various members of the family referred to elders in their family who were deaf and who used sign language that was not ASL. Their understanding is that sign language use has a long history in their culture; indeed they referred to their indigenous sign system as "Inuk Sign Language". Direct questions about the nature of the sign language, how it was taught and learned, and who uses it were treated as "academic" questions with little relevance to daily life. This would be similar to the response of anyone who was asked how they learned their language. Language acquisition is a natural unconscious process which is not ordinarily the subject of reflection. In their culture at least, sign language by acquisition for a deaf infant or person seems to occur naturally.

4.2.3 Pangnirtung

A fourth field visit and videotaping took place in Pangnirtung. Pangnirtung was accessible in the time frame of the project and the weather permitted travel to this destination. Even though the deaf person in Pangnirtung who was reputed to have "her own form of sign language" was away, it was agreed in consultation with the Nunavut Council for People with Disabilities (NCPD) that it would be important to talk to the family to get a history of the situation and perceptions of deafness, sign language, etc. from the family perspective.

An interview was taped with the deaf woman’s sister who was a skilled user of the sign language. The interview covers various topics including her sister’s medical and linguistic history, attitudes about deafness, development of the sign language and concerns about the issue of ASL and indigenous sign language as well as other related topics. The deaf woman works in a local craft shop with her sister and she has a hearing child, who is 6 years old, who uses sign language. A list of the words for which signs were demonstrated during this interview is attached as Appendix C.

It was clear from this interview as well that once the deafness was discovered the family started signing to the deaf infant. Evidently they were living on the land at a permanent settlement. It is known that if a family has encouraged the development of spontaneous sign in an infant, and if they provided an appropriate signing environment, then a signed language will most certainly develop (Goldin-Meadow and Mylander, 1994) . This is clearly what occurred in this situation and the language that the deaf woman now uses to function in her community is, according to her hearing sister, used by a significant number of hearing persons in Pangnirtung.

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