History of Education in Nunavik

Traditional education

The Inuit have flourished in the region known as Nunavik (Northern Quebec above the 55th parallel) for the last 4,000 years. Through all these centuries, the traditional education process imparted all that was necessary to survive and to perpetuate the Inuit culture. Carried out on an informal basis by parents, relatives and peers, traditional informal education included teaching and learning through imitation, with no specific time frame for mastery. The child would move on to the next skill level when he or she was ready.

The Missionaries

The Moravians, Anglicans and Oblate missionaries were all active in Nunavik from approximately 1811 to 1956. Their goal was to “Christianize” the Inuit. Relying on their own resources, they taught Inuit children and adults voluntarily and informally reading, writing, arithmetic and religion.

As early as 1811, the first Christian Moravian missionaries visited the Kangiqsualujjuaq and Kuujjuaq region from Labrador. The first Oblate missionary wintered south of Kuujjuaq in 1853. And before 1900, Inuit were learning to read and write using syllabic characters which were introduced by the Anglican missionaries.

Since most Inuit still pursued a traditional nomadic lifestyle, mission schooling operated on an irregular basis throughout most of this period.

The first mission school in Nunavik was established in Kuujjuaq in 1932 by the Anglicans. When families came to replenish supplies, Anglican missionaries gave simple instruction in arithmetic and writing in syllabics.

In 1956, with (federal) government help, a mission school was set up in Puvirnituq by (Oblate) Father André Steinmann. Father Steinmann’s style was unique – he would translate material from English texts into Inuktitut to make it easier for the students to learn.

Mission schools didn’t flourish due to a lack of money, personnel and training to provide a proper secular education.


The earliest Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in Nunavik opened in Kuujjuaraapik in 1829. Traders, with their interest in furs and material goods, provided an economic education. Through the fur trade, the Inuit were introduced to the capitalist economic system.

Federal schools

Inuit being a federal government responsibility under the Constitutional Act of 1867 (as recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of In Re Eskimos (1939) R.C.S. 104), and the jurisdiction of the provincial government toward the native population of Northern Quebec being ill-defined under the Quebec Boundaries Extension Act of 1912 (when a vast area was transferred from the Northwest Territories to the province), it was the federal government who first developed a formal school system in Nunavik.

This occurred after World War II, when federal authorities believed that the North now had strategic importance and resource potential.

With the growing importance of the North, the inadequate educational system of the mission schools gave way to a more comprehensive system operated by the federal government and patterned after those in Canada’s provinces.

The federal initiatives had started as a result of discoveries of natural resource wealth and a desire to integrate the Inuit into Canadian society. Through education and vocational training, it was hoped that the Inuit would have a meaningful role in the development of the postwar Arctic region. In Diefenbaker’s 1958 “Northern Vision” election campaign, he believed that northern development would improve the living conditions of the North’s inhabitants and place them on a more equal footing with other Canadians. Thus, middle-sized local schools and vocational schools were established at northern regional centres such as Churchill and Kuujjuaraapik.

The Inuit were to be given a chance to become “equal Canadians” by assimilation – thus the exclusive use of English to the extent that use of the mother tongue in school was a punishable offense. The Ontario education curriculum was used. Inuit teachers’ aids were trained as translators for the novice students. At the beginning, school attendance was the precipitating factor for receiving family allowance and welfare payments.

The new school system was universal and free to all with compulsory attendance. It provided job skills training to enable the Inuit to enter the mainstream of Canadian life. However, Inuit were excluded from curriculum development and the policy formation process.

From 1949, the opening of the first federal day school to 1963, the opening of the first provincial school in Nunavik, the federal government, specifically the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development) maintained sole responsibility for education services. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Inuit children began to attend federal (primary) schools in Nunavik. By the end of 1963, the federal government had established schools in ten communities: Inukjuak (1949), Kuujjuaq (1949), Kangiqsualujjuaq (1962), Quaqtaq (1960), Kangirsuk (1960), Kangiqsujuaq (1960), Salluit (1957), Ivujivik (1960), Puvirnituq (1958) and Kuujjuaraapik (1957).

Provincial schools

Until 1963, the Quebec government assumed no responsibility for the Inuit of Nouveau Québec (Nunavik). From 1963 to the present, provincial interest in the region was stimulated by a desire to develop the hydro-electric and mineral resources of the region and a desire to replace the federal civil service.

In 1963, the Quebec government introduced Bill 60, which called for the creation of a Department of Education. The schools would not be secular, but they would be run by the state.

This corresponds to that period in the history of Quebec known as “la révolution tranquille” which saw a modernization of the Education system throughout the province.

The Québec government saw the school system as the main vehicle for integration and established provincial schools in Kangiqsujuaq and Kuujjuaq in 1963 under the authority of the Direction Général du Nouveau Québec (DGNQ). In 1968, a new school municipality was established – La Commission scolaire du Nouveau Québec – which subsequently administered all schools under provincial jurisdiction in Northern Quebec.

The major innovations of this Board included the creation of parents’ committees; the recognition of Inuit as teachers (there was a contract for teacher training at first with l’Université du Quebec, and then with McGill University); the hiring of the first pedagogical counsellors; the first Inuit traditional skills programs; the offering of adult education courses; and the inception of the FranNord project (a special program for teaching French to Inuit students).

The provincial school system also offered Inuktitut instruction for the first three years of schooling with a choice of English or French as the language of instruction from grade three on. By promising total Inuktitut instruction in the first three grades and Inuktitut language classes thereafter, the provincial government had to recruit and train Inuit as teachers. Federal Classroom Assistants were hired for this purpose. The CSNQ initiated the Inuit Teacher Training Program, and under the auspices of McGill University, offered the first official courses in Kuujjuaq in 1975.

Provincial and federal schools operated at the same time in the same communities. The provincial government was determined that the transfer from federal to provincial authority would take place. The federal position was to provide services as long as they were in demand by the Inuit.

Throughout the 1960s, the provincial government’s handling of Inuit education resulted in difficulty in gaining the confidence of the Nunavik population. As provincial governments changed, so did the education policy. As a result, parents were reluctant to enroll their children in CSNQ schools. By the mid-70s, there were four times as many children in federal schools as in provincial schools.

By the mid-70s, CSNQ was operating ten schools and a successful Teacher Training Program. Though not completely successful in attracting students, the CSNQ influenced the federal day schools with respect to their programs and organization. As a direct result of innovative ideas suggested by CSNQ, the federal system reconsidered its position on Inuktitut instruction, parental involvement and language of instruction. Starting in 1973, the federal school system in Nunavik established advisory parent committees and introduced Inuit language programs.

For the Inuit, the desire to control their own destiny was perhaps prompted by the provincial government’s announcement of the James Bay Hydroelectric Project in 1971 without any prior consultation with the Inuit or Crees of the affected region. As a voice for Inuit political opinion during the subsequent negotiations, the Northern Quebec Inuit Association (NQIA) was created. To control their own destiny meant the Inuit had to gain greater control of their own education.

The James Bay & Northern Quebec Agreement

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) was signed on November 11, 1975. It provided for the settlement of comprehensive Inuit land claims in Northern Quebec (Nunavik), and established structures for the economic and social advancement of the population. Thus, the Kativik School Board was created, under provisions of the Quebec Education Act, to serve the people living in the communities of Northern Quebec, north of the 55th parallel.

The Kativik School Board

Chapter 17 of the JBNQA established the Kativik School Board, a non-ethnic board which was to offer educational services to all residents of Nunavik, the vast majority being Inuit.

The Board’s program drew upon some of the progressive ideas found in the CSNQ schools. Inuktitut would be the language of instruction in the first three years of school with a choice between English and French from Grade 3 onward. Culture classes and religion would be taught by Inuit teachers. Culture classes as well as excursion classes on the land to learn survival skills would be taught. The Teacher Training Program would be maintained and Education Committees (advisory bodies comprised mainly of parents) would be formed through open elections in all communities. Each community would also elect one Commissioner. Courses would follow the Quebec provincial curriculum in English or French.

The Takeover

The first Commissioners’ meeting was held in September 1976, senior staff was hired in the Spring of 1977, and the official transfer to the Kativik School Board of the students, school staff and property of both the federal and provincial school systems took place in July 1978.

The Mandate

• To provide preschool, elementary, secondary and adult education

• To develop programs and teaching materials, and provide education in Inuktitut, English and French

• To train Inuit teachers to meet provincial standards

• To develop a curriculum that embraces Inuit traditions, culture and language, and prepares students for active participation in the modern world

• To encourage, arrange and supervise post-secondary education

• To provide administrative and on-the-job training for School Board employees

•  To encourage and meet the demand for academic upgrading and technical-vocational education for the adult population

• To provide a sufficient infrastructure to meet the current and future education needs in Nunavik

*(The main source of information for this section is ‘Inuit Education in Nouveau Québec 1912 – 1991’ by Brian Callaghan, MEd 1992. The information provided contains direct quotes from this document.)


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