Access to Justice for Deaf Persons in Nunavut: Focus on Signed Languages


It is hypothesized that signing in Nunavut is indeed indigenous to the culture as a whole in the fashion that has been documented for many native peoples in North America and elsewhere (Farnell, 1995). Overall, it was evident that the signed languages served to meet all the needs of daily living. It was clear, as well, that the generation of new signs was undertaken naturally by both hearing and deaf persons in a way that resembles this function in all known signed languages (Klima and Bellugi,1979; Padden and Humphries, 1989; Siple, 1978 ). For example, the deaf man from Baker Lake had acquired many "new" signs while in Iqaluit; some ASL based and some unique to Nunavut. The proclivity for generating "new" signs is an important indicator of the capacity of the signing system to adapt to new situations. This aspect is also very important in the context of future use of this signing system in the framework of the courts and the justice system generally.

It is important to reiterate that this is a preliminary analysis. The analysis of signed languages is a complex affair involving many factors, including subtle facial expressions and extensive knowledge of the cultural and linguistic context of discourse. Clearly, this initial examination of the language status of deaf people in Nunavut will not, by itself, settle long-debated questions about the origins of languages, the relation between gesture, sign and language, the nature-nurture debate and the status of signed versus spoken languages. An "outsider" is not in a position to determine the ontological status of any language or communication system which is in use by any cultural linguistic community. As the philosopher Quine stated, understanding a language involves understanding a "Weltanschauung" or a "world view", or as Wittgenstein succinctly pointed out, "to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life" (both cited in Armstrong, 1999).

What is clear from this preliminary study is that whatever the status of signed languages used by the deaf people of Nunavut, these languages, or at the very least these complex communication systems, provide the basis for social intercourse in their daily life and therefore should be available in the courts and the justice system generally. If full access to Charter rights under sections 14 and 15(1) is to be guaranteed, then concrete steps will have to be taken to ensure that the unique communication needs of the deaf people of Nunavut are addressed. A number of recommendations are provided here to help meet this goal.

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