About as many Canadians—39,945—speak Inuktitut as they do Somali, Armenian, Turkish, or Swahili. But you may have never heard the Inuit language here: In Ontario, only 280 people use it, and in the whole Toronto area, that number’s just 15.
Well, we’re a long way from Nunavut. Three-fifths of Inuktitut’s Canadian speakers live there, where it’s an official language. (“Nunavut,” or, means “our land” in Inuktitut.)
What’s it like to live in Toronto and speak it?
Inside the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre at the corner of Dundas East and Parliament, I meet Joseph, a man in his 40s who speaks both English and Inuktitut. As a kid living in Alaska, he’d catch glimpses of Toronto on his family’s black-and-white TV set. “I wanted to experience it,” he says. “My grandmother used to tell me, ‘Go out there and search; go out and see what the world looks like.’” So that’s what he did, living first in Edmonton and then, finally, at 18, coming to Toronto. Now, he says, “it seems like I live in two different worlds”: one English and one Inuktitut. He did his wedding vows in Inuktitut (his fiancée is from Trinidad and doesn’t speak Inuktitut, but understands it), and whenever his siblings write letters, he’ll write back in Inuktitut. “When I speak in English, sometimes I wonder if I’m going to say the right thing,” Joseph explains. But Inuktitut? “It’s in my blood,” he says.
If just 15 people speak it, does that make Inuktitut Toronto’s least-spoken language?
It’s more like it’s the least-spoken language here of the dozens that Statistics Canada tracks individually. All the above numbers come from the 2011 National Household Survey, the results of which lumps some languages into “other Aboriginal languages” and “other non-Aboriginal languages.” A few of those might have just one or two speakers in Toronto, but, according to a Statistics Canada spokesperson, “we would have no way of telling.” Numbers are also rounded up or down to the nearest multiple of five, so there could be only 13 Inuktitut speakers. Or 17. And any of the languages listed as having no speakers in the Toronto area, like Blackfoot or Stoney, could actually have a few. What’s more, because the survey was voluntary, and not mandatory like the census, it’s likely less accurate than it could be. “There probably are more [Inuktitut] speakers than were reported,” says Alana Johns, a U of T linguistics professor who studies the language. “But that’s probably the case for all of the small languages.”