For Inuit, the term education means much more than what happens in a classroom; education encompasses the life-long learning that individuals do to become full participating members of their communities. Prior to colonization, Inuit learned by watching and interacting with their elders, and traditional knowledge was valuable and essential for survival as modern education is in contemporary western cultures. However, the damaging impacts of colonization—including the residential school system—undermined traditional education practices and separated youth from the safety and comfort of their families and communities. This forced attempt at assimilation on the part of the Canadian government caused trauma to not only those who attended residential schools, but also to their families and communities. This profoundly negative educational experience has had a lasting impact on Inuit women and their families.
As Inuit collectively fight to restore and revalue traditional education practices, they are also participating in the mainstream Canadian education systems in increasing numbers. While residential schools have now closed, the current state of the public education system in the North has been described by ITK leader Mary Simon as being in “a state of crisis.” Literacy levels are well below the national average in elementary and secondary schools alike. It is of great concern that nearly 60 per cent of Inuit across the four Arctic regions have less than a high school education.[i] Furthermore, with 50% of the current Inuit population under the age of 25, there is a pressing need to educate youth so that they can fill important positions within the northern economy. Inuit lack equal access to post-secondary education and the necessary supports to get them there as most individuals must leave their homes and communities to pursue educational opportunities in southern Canada. The status quo has significant implications for public policy and programs to meet the needs of the youngest and fastest growing population in the country. Pauktuutit’s members believe that all Inuit women deserve equal access to and benefits from education and they work to ensure that Inuit women participate equally in both traditional educational activities in their communities and within the Canadian education system. This can ensure that women are prepared to face the challenges ahead of them and participate fully in the social, economic and political levels.
While education is of critical importance to its staff, members and board, currently Pauktuutit does not have any funded projects specific to education. However, Pauktuutit sits on ITK’s National Committee on Inuit Education and will be seeking funding to do more work in this area in the months and years to come. This committee meets via conference call twice a month.