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Languages on the line
Bilingual receptionist keeps Inuktitut healthy in hamlet and at home

Peter Worden
Northern News Services
Published Friday, February 22, 2013

The cheerful "ullaakkut" or "unuksakkut" at the other end of the line when calling the Pond Inlet's hamlet office is the voice of Jeannie Maktar the hamlet's receptionist and friendly promoter of Inuktitut in the workplace.

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Jeannie Maktar doubles as Pond Inlet hamlet office's receptionist and translators. She says keeping Inuit languages alive and well is very important. - photo courtesy of Jeannie Maktar

"I like answering phone calls from the community and elsewhere. If people have a question, I will try to answer them as best I can," said Maktar, the hamlet's bilingual office clerk for the last two years.

"Some people ask me some questions that are not related to the hamlet. People ask me a lot about dogs and there are always different questions daily I try to answer as best I can," she said, adding one such question recently was how many non-Inuit live in Pond Inlet. "There's quite a few so I wasn't able to answer that question."

With a growing non-Inuit population in the North, and Pond Inlet in particular, some may worry for the future of Inuit languages, but not Maktar at least not in the hamlet office where Inuktitut is alive and well.

"We speak Inuktitut all the time. It's very important," she said, explaining how, in meetings and e-mails, her duty doubles as a translator. Mayor Jaykolassie Killiktee, for example, only speaks Inuktitut. He can understand English but not speak or read it. "So whenever mail comes in where there's no Inuktitut version, I will ... get it translated and from there I will give it to the mayor."

Last week (Feb. 18-20) marked Inuit Language Week, which kicked off the new 2013 theme "Keep our language strong."

"I try to do as much as I can," said Maktar about the 12-person hamlet office, which is all Inuit except for SAO Mike Redken. Her advice to other frontline public servants at reception desks across the territory is this: "If you're speaking with an Inuk person, use your own language at all times. And if you're going to speak with a non-Inuit, use English if you have to but try to teach them a bit of Inuktitut too so they're able to understand what we're saying. That's what we do with Mike, our SAO -- we'll say 'ullaakkut Mike' and he'll say 'ullaakkut.'"

Maktar, originally from Iglulik, moved to Pond Inlet in 1987 from Nanisivik, the site of Canada's first Arctic mine, a zinc-lead mine near Arctic Bay, after meeting her husband. She took some jobs "here, there and everywhere" before enrolling in an office administration course and getting a job with the hamlet office.

She lives at home with her five children and one adopted granddaughter. Despite the distractions of English television and an English-dominated Internet, she keeps Inuktitut the dominant language of the household.

"We do speak English, like when I have to scold them," she said jokingly, "but we mostly speak Inuktitut."

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