FYI... This item would seem to be in the theme of the International Mother
Language Day this year. There are in fact indigenous sign languages that are
both part of the cultural/linguistic heritage of peoples and among the formes
of communication one can learn to "read." The case described below (fwd'd from
the ILAT list) concerns Inuit. There's a fairly well developed Hausa sign
language, apparently: see the book Maganar hannu (Language of the Hands): A
Descriptive Analysis of Hausa Sign Language (Constanze Schmaling, 1997). There
must also be many others. DZO
February 4, 2005
Inuit Sign Language could open courts to the deaf
Official recognition, interpreter training only way to guarantee Charter rights
The case of Bobby Suwarak, a deaf man from Baker Lake who communicates with
gestures not related to standard sign language, has raised the possibility of
an indigenous sign language known to Inuit for centuries.
And that has raised the potential for training legal interpreters who can assist
deaf Nunavummiut, whether accused of crimes or victims of crimes, in the
According to David Kautaq, who grew up with Suwarak and has served as his
interpreter several times, Suwarak can hear if you stand directly behind him
and yell into his right ear at the top of your lungs.
However, he prefers to communicate with his friend using the language he learned
from Suwarak's family, which he describes as "basically like charades," a
gesture system made up of English and Inuktitut.
In court-ordered assessments, a hearing specialist from Montreal has determined
three times that Suwarak cannot communicate effectively in court using his
language through an interpreter unfamiliar with the legal system.
But after meeting deaf people and their families in Baker Lake, Pangnirtung,
Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet in 2000, the same specialist found that an Inuit sign
language exists, and could be used to offer trained court interpreters for deaf
Using video to capture signing, Jamie MacDougall found that signers in two
different communities shared similar gestures for certain words, such as walrus
or polar bear.
He also found that several people - not just the deaf - use, or recall elders
using, what one participant called "Inuk sign language."
The existence of such a language would be consistent with documented cases of
several aboriginal peoples that use a signing system to communicate.
In a report presented to Justice Canada five years ago, MacDougall recommended
that, in order to meet the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the court can and
should provide trained legal interpreters for the estimated 155 deaf people in
Nunavut, who currently rely on family and friends for the service.
He also recommends that work begin towards officially recognizing ISL as a
MacDougall compares this process to the still recent recognition of Inuktitut in
the courts, and the steps that have been taken to document and promote the
language over the last 20 to 30 years.
"[ISL] is a language spoken by a small number of people, but under the charter
and so on, I believe it has to be recognized," MacDougall says.
Recognition of the language could have a huge impact on deaf people across
MacDougall estimates that 30 per cent of Nunavut's deaf rely on ISL to
communicate. Many others, however, are sent south to learn American Sign
That has the benefit of offering them a legally recognized language, but they
often return home to find few people can understand them.
At the same time, MacDougall found that almost 75 per cent of the population of
Baker Lake can speak to Suwarak through signs.
Kautaq himself is an advocate. "You can communicate with him yourself if you
have the patience," he says.
And many people do.
Outside of courtroom number one in Iqaluit last week, Suwarak was chatting,
laughing and joking with a man who was also released from custody last week.
"We first met in BCC in 2000," said Inusiq Shoo. "When I first met him I didn't
know the language."
Similarly, Suwarak has no trouble communicating with Kautaq's 16-month-old son
in their hotel room the next day, just as the small child will probably have no
trouble learning to speak Suwarak's language as he gets older.
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