McGREGOR, Heather E., 2010 Inuit Education and Schools in the Eastern Arctic, Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 220 pages.

  • Anne S. Douglas

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  • Anne S. Douglas
    48 Academy Road, Apt. 2, Westmount, Quebec H3Z 1N6, Canada

Corps de l’article

This book, a chronological narrative, is “as an invitation to examine more closely the factors that have influenced the purpose and practice of education in the Eastern Arctic” (McGregor 2010: ix). In chapter one, “History of the Eastern Arctic: Foundations and themes,” the author provides an overview of the environmental, historical, and socio-political context into which the schools were introduced. In chapter two, “Living and learning on the land: Inuit education in the traditional period,” she addresses the Inuit’s customary socialisation practices.

The next three chapters cover the administration of formal schooling from the mid-1940s to 1999: they summarise the philosophies, reports, and policies that fostered the evolution of the school system. Starting with chapter three, “Qallunaat schooling: Assimilation in the colonial period,” the author outlines how formal schooling was introduced to Inuit as part of the federal government’s plan to colonise the Arctic. McGregor considers that this period—extending from the government’s first interventions until the early 1970s—was characterised by three trends: first, the collapse of the Inuit’s traditional economic base; second, the subjection of Inuit to the paternalistic and culturally disrespectful attitudes of many Qallunaat; and third, the transformation of the Arctic into a welfare state. In chapter four, “Educational change: New possibilities in the territorial period,” the author documents how the Department of Education of the Government of the Northwest Territories (NWT) took charge of formal schooling. Although the government intended to include more Inuit content and personnel in the schools, it lacked the practical components to realise many of its objectives.

The fifth chapter, “Reclaiming the schools: Inuit involvement in the local period,” illustrates how the territorial government delegated responsibility for schooling to elected school boards, local education authorities, and elected community education councils. The author concentrates on the Baffin Divisional Board of Education, the first divisional board to be incorporated. Of most significance, Inuit brought their culture into the schools through curriculum content, spoken and written Inuktitut, and Inuit classroom assistants. Many of these assistants eventually became accredited teachers through the NWT Teacher Education Program. In 1999, with the creation of Nunavut, a new educational regime was introduced. While schooling remained under Inuit control, the government centralised the management of education, thereby diminishing recently gained local input and influence. In concluding, McGregor addresses the policies of the new government. She believes the school system has suffered because the government has failed to prioritise education.

The book’s strength lies in these last chapters. The tone and fluency of chapter five in particular reveal the author’s assuredness with respect to the ongoing process of administering the school system during these years. She was fortunate to have access to documents and tapes that recorded this period.[1]

The encounter between Inuit and the Westernised school system is not an easy story to relate. McGregor approaches her subject from a vast historical canvas and pulls the multiple strands of her account together conscientiously. Throughout the text she brings in many of the voices that speak in this ongoing narrative by citing quotations from secondary sources; her bibliography attests to her extensive search. The quotes serve as stepping-stones that support the author’s way through the text. Some of them are excellent and to the point, such as Pudlo Pudlat’s account of developing self-reliance: “‘[…] we just learned by example, by watching and trying’ (cited in Bennett and Rowley, 2004: 32)” (McGregor 2010: 47).

But McGregor falls short in her reading of some sources. In summarising a citation from Wenzel (2000: 183) about the threat to animal resources caused by human population densities, she inaccurately concludes, “The structure of kinship and social relations […] became irrelevant to the daily lives of Inuit in the communities” (McGregor 2010: 59). Not only is this conclusion untrue, it belies Wenzel’s findings, which illustrate how hunting relationships reinforce kinship bonds.

Moreover, in choosing to cut a wide swath, the author has fallen prey to some over-simplifications and repetitions. For example, she adopts the practice of referring to the Inuit’s customary method of educating their children as “informal,” and to Westernised schooling as “formal” (McGregor 2010: 6, passim). These well-worn labels misrepresent the distinction between two entirely different types of society, each with its respective purpose for and methods of socialisation. In addition, her consistent use of the concepts “knowing,” “doing,” and “being” to encompass the totality of Inuit culture flattens and diminishes the culture’s full richness (2010: 44, passim). While the author elaborates on the terms’ implications, they remain limiting and school-centric.

In the introduction to their edited collection of essays, Fisher and Coates (1988: 2) point out that the body of work on government policy and Native education tends to be written from the perspective of administrators rather than from that of the people themselves. While McGregor does give Inuit a voice, her account remains very much an administrator’s book—this is her area of expertise. Nonetheless, one begins to recognise that a deeper story lies behind the many quotes from Inuit; they are the tips of icebergs, arising out of lives that are profoundly changing. We would like to know more.

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