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Keepers of the Language: Nunavut’s newsreader has done it all, from garbage man to mayor

CBC is doing a series of stories to recognize that the United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The observance is meant to raise awareness about the consequences of losing endangered languages, and to establish a link between language, development, peace and reconciliation.

Kowisa Arlooktoo had “kind of done everything,” before coming to CBC, but still finds himself learning on the job. 

His voice is one people across Nunavut and Northern Quebec have been waking up to every weekday for more than a decade — he reads the day’s news in Inuktitut. 

“This is actually a really good opportunity for me to become more fluent in Inuktitut,” Arlooktoo said. “There’s a lot of untold stories out there.”

Arlooktoo, 53, wasn’t always a morning person, a journalist, or strong in Inuktitut. 

He started out as a garbage collector in his home community of Kimmirut, and said he had trouble getting to work for 8 a.m.; now he’s in the office for 6 a.m. every morning. 

From garbage collector, he went on to become the mayor of Kimmirut, as well as a social worker, a carver and jewelry maker — all of which he says prepared him for the variety of stories he tells on the radio. 

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Arlooktoo recording an interview in Inuktitut. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

The first time he read the news — nearly 13 years ago — he says he only had a half hour to prepare. 

He was a student at Nunavut’s Arctic College, interning at CBC cataloging old Inuktitut interviews, when he was asked to fill in — translating the English script to Inuktitut live on air. 

About a year later, he took on the job full time. 

Different dialects

At CBC he’s learned how to communicate in many of Nunavut’s Inuktitut dialects.

Going by the person’s last name and the community, Arlooktoo tries to match his language to what he knows of the area, as some words can mean completely opposite things in different regions. 

“It’s their story. I want to try and make sure it’s from their dialect,” Arlooktoo said. 

This has also shifted how he teaches Inuktitut to his eight children. The oldest is 33 and the youngest is 13, and he’s also a grandfather.

There’s a lot of hurdles to teaching Inuktitut to the next generation. He says English can be direct and precise, where Inuktitut uses broader strokes and relies on cultural context to make its meaning clear — he worries his children are growing up in a different cultural context. 

In Iqaluit, English is more prevalent than in Kimmirut. 

“I find that a lot of the kids nowadays, Inuit kids anyway, communicate in English because of the different dialects,” he said. 

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In 2017, Nunavut’s territorial election coverage was broadcast bilingually with Igalaaq host Madeleine Allakariallak, Kowisa Arlooktoo, and Igalaaq producer Pauline Pemik. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

His children went to school in Iqaluit and had Inuktitut teachers with a whole range of dialects. 

“My mistake was that after school they started talking to me in a total foreign Inuktitut dialect. So instead of gently correcting them… I sometimes used to say, ‘That’s not how you say it. This is how you say it.’ But, apparently, I kind of scared them off in speaking Inuktitut.” 

He says he’s trying to change that. He’s stopping himself from speaking in English just because it’s faster, and taking the time to have a conversation in Inuktitut. 

Balancing culture and work

Arlooktoo says there have been moments in this job that have put him in conflict with his culture and community. 

“Over the years, I’ve lost some friends because of them making the news, and then me reading it,” Arlooktoo said. 

The cultural stigma against asking probing personal questions has also been tough. But it’s also been an opportunity to connect. 

“I always like talking, especially to elders, because I’m now an older guy and I, somehow, have to pass along what I know now to my kids,” Arlooktoo said. 

As a veteran in Iqaluit’s newsroom, he’s become a go-between — explaining Inuit culture to his English colleagues, and finding ways to bring national and international stories to an Inuit audience. 

He appears regularly on Igalaaq, CBC’s supper hour Inuktitut television show, to give an international news update.  

Arlooktoo is a news junkie — so he sifts through what’s happening in the world and tries to find something that will interest an Inuit audience.  

When choosing the story, he’s thinking about unilingual Inuit — while a story may be rolling through the 24-hour news cycle in English, it may be the first time it’s told in Inuktitut. 

“I encourage other Inuit to think about becoming storytellers or story listeners. It’s so satisfying … And it’s really interesting.”

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