Connecting Nunavik
(Arctic Quebec)

This is a the first chapter in a research report prepared for Taqramiut Nipingat by Thomas Axtell. After 8 months of operation TNI pulled the plug on this ambitious project; until more resources are in place to provide a sustainable service, which appears to be soon. To learn more about the development of the information highway in Nunavik, contact Gorge Berthe, President of TNI at 514 631-1394

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Communications media have had a profound impact on Inuit in the past thirty years. In the face of massive social change Inuit have adopted "HF trail radio", community FM radio, and regional radio and television networks, to their advantage. Today, Inuit are preparing to own and control their section of the information highway.

The pilot project called Connecting Nunavik is attempting to place broad bandwidth telecommunications services in the hands of indigenous people. The mission of Connecting Nunavik is to develop the applications and communications infrastructure needed and desired by northerners and ensure the equitable integration of information technologies throughout Nunavik.

This report documents the early development of the "information highway" in Nunavik (Arctic Quebec). In particular, it focuses on how the Aboriginal communication organization, Taqramiut Nipingat (TNI), is responding to the challenges and opportunities posed by the digital revolution.

Connecting Nunavik communities to their own intranet and to the global information highway is a huge undertaking for Northern regions. In the past, a project such as Connecting Nunavik would likely have been initiated by government. Today, no single government or organization could successfully implement such an advanced digital satellite network alone. The planning the infrastructure for a digital communications system must be done within the context of, and in concert with, public and private initiatives already underway. Many partnerships will be required to efficiently plan and mobilize a project of this magnitude and ensure the sustainability of the community infrastructure.



Internet and Communications
Development in Nunavik

"I have learned to use a rifle, a video camera, and now a modem."
(George Berthe, June, 1996)

This section situates TNI's pilot project "Connecting Nunavik" in the context of the historical processes of Inuit acculturation and self-determination. Thirty years of modern communications development have led to a profound transformation of Inuit reality. As yet another agent of change, the information highway has the potential to catapult Inuit into increased participation in the world outside the North (e.g., Quebec, Canada, North America and the global community). Whether the new communications technologies will support self-determination or result in acculturation will largely depend on how accessible, appropriate and relevant they are to Inuit.

The first generation of Inuit to be raised in the modern world met the challenge presented by new radio and television communications creatively. They built a remarkable system of radio and telecommunications that defied conventional models of technological development in Canada and most of the developed world. Against great odds, they created a system in which they could speak their own language, Inuttitut.

In addition to entering a technologically advanced industry (Abele, 1989), the skills of broadcasting helped this generation of Inuit shape the current political and economic leadership.It is clear that young Inuit leaders are fully prepared to take part in the new digital revolution. But just as the preceding generation discovered that the tools to provide relevant television content in the Inuttitut language were by no means guaranteed, today's generation must contend with the fact that the infrastructure needed to connect the North to the information highway has not yet become a right.


It is a highway


In the 1970s, Inuit in Nunavik adopted communications tools such as the telephone, trail radio and community radio and adapted them to their own uses. In the mid-1970s and 1980s they did the same with television and, more recently, in the 1990s, they are entering the 30-channel universe of cable. Inuit will, no doubt, embrace and indigenize the new digital communications technologies in a similar fashion.

In Arctic Quebec, where there are no highways, the term is not a cliché -- it is very real. Northern peoples need highways to connect with the rest of the world. Highways reduce isolation, facilitate visits to specialists such as doctors, accountants or lawyers, help attract tourists to the North, and allow the marketing of goods and the provision of services from practically anywhere. The "information highway" will play a comparable role.

"It means a revolution in how we entertain ourselves, how we are educated, how we receive and create news, and how we interact with each other, business and government. It means an enormous choice among entertainment and information products, new opportunities to create business, social and cultural alliances, and new possibilities to strengthen the participatory nature of our democratic heritage."
(Industry Canada, 1995)

If it appears that expectations for a revolution prompted by the advent of the information highway are high in the South, they are even higher in the North.

A Brief History

The history of Inuit and European contact goes back 400 years. It is estimated that, by 1910, 98% of Inuit in the eastern Arctic were literate in Inuktitut (Graburn, 1979). However, communications history for Inuit really began in 1922 when Robert Flaherty's film, "Nanook of the North," was seen by millions.

A tale about Inuit on the Hudson coast of Nunavik, it was the first feature documentary film ever made. It was also a film made with the direct collaboration of Inuit changing forever how the world saw them. Since then, cross-cultural communications between the North and the outside world has continued to modify the cultures of the North.

The Canadian government has placed a high priority on communications development in the North ever since the 1960s. Deliberate policy initiatives which supported the building of a communications infrastructure included the creation of the CBC Northern Service (1959), the establishment of a domestic satellite policy (Telesat Act, 1969), and the subsequent launching of the Anik satellite in 1972, which brought live broadcasting and improved telephony to the North in 1973, when the satellite became operationalized.. This was followed by special programs such as the Guaranteed Annual Revenue scheme, the Northern Assistance Program, and the Northern Communications Program (1973-74).


The Northern Broadcasting Policy (1983) mapped out the future evolution of Northern broadcasting, stressing concepts such as "access", "participation" and "consultation." During the 1980s and 1990s, the extension of telecommunications services to the North has taken place. The Northern mediascape now includes public and private broadcasting services, both native and non-native controlled, competing telecommunications services, and the foundation for an information highway infrastructure. Prominent among the broadcasting undertakings are 13 regional Native Communications Societies, such as Taqramiut Nipingat, Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, and Television Northern Canada.

Anik Attacks!

In 1968, Canada's first domestic satellite was proposed and approved a year later (1969). Anik (which means 'brother' in Inuttitut) was to:

"provide television coverage...telephone and message communications services
to the North and to the underdeveloped regions to bring those areas into the
mainstream of Canadian life by high quality telecommunications" (Kenney, 1971).

In 1968, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development stated that the satellite system:

"has tremendous importance for northern Canada, for its inhabitants and especially
for the Eskimos and Indians. For the first time in their whole lives once the system
is established, those people will really be in a position to communicate with the
other Canadian citizens and to take part in all aspects of Canadian life" (Kenney, ibid).

Before this, it was only possible to receive short-wave radio in English or French. Even though the first Inuttitut broadcast occurred in 1960, by 1972, still only 17% of CBC Northern Service short-wave was in the Inuit language (Mayes, 1973).

However, before television fully penetrated the Inuit North, they had invented northern community radio. The idea originated from the TNI study, The Northerners (1972), undertaken by Josepi Padlyat and Paul Lumsden. In the early 1970s, makeshift stations were set up in several Nunavik communities and the idea later spread to Indian reserves and other rural and remote areas throughout the North (Stenbaek, 1988). These stations served as "electronic community notice boards", long before the cable access channel, Chat or Listserv became popular. The endurance of these community information utilities is proof that Inuit can appropriate new technologies.
In 1975, following community consultations, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada wrote, "we now realize it is dangerous to leave the planning and the development of our communications systems to government, the CBC and the telephone companies."

The Canadian effort to create national unity through broadcasting was in direct conflict with the Inuit need to maintain an identity. Inuit wanted to produce their own television programming. TNI grew in strength as an organization partly through the wave of resistance that accompanied the arrival of the first Anik satellite. It launched pilot projects with the help of the Department of Communications.

Naalakvik I was an interactive audio experiment in northern Quebec in 1976 using the Hermes Anik A satellite to link up eight radio stations in Nouveau Quebec. At the time TNI was affiliated with the Northern Quebec Inuit Association (NQIA), a native land claims lobbying group.

Perhaps well-intentioned, the federal government's communications policies, like the policies that lead to the relocation of Inuit families to Ellesmere Island, were based on a problematic approach to development. As Valaskakis (1988) points out, media technologies were instrumental in supporting the acculturation of the Inuit within a model that can best be described as cultural replacement. The Anik satellite brought the South into the homes of Inuit.

"Non-native control and the "boom and bust" pattern of northern development established a social change that fostered Inuit dependency. However, commercial television and permanent schools with southern curricula and teachers probably constitute the most serious assaults on native identity and cohesion. Schooling in English formalized the process of cultural replacement with television extended to the home. As Wilson (1981) suggested, both have been instrumental in reinforcing a sense of helplessness among Inuit, a generalized "giving up" which emerges from a perceived lack of control over their lives and is closely related to low self-esteem." (Ibid)

This helps explains why Inuit in Nunavik became one of the first peoples to stop television from entering their communities in 1974, and demand control over education. Television was refused by Nunavik communities because it lacked Inuttitut and northern programming. Television was accepted eventually with dramatic results. Television overtook the North. Visiting and interaction patterns of the populations shifted and numerous other responses have been noted, which indicate profound cultural impacts on residents (Axtell, 1981; Jackson, 1992).

The Anik satellite brought the South into the homes of Inuit.


TNI organized Naalakvik II (1978-81) as part of the Anik B trial-access program. It consisted of a series of interactive audio/video experiments using satellite to link up five villages. Along with the Inukshuk project of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, Inuit learned how to produce their own radio and television programs. They also had the opportunity to use videoconferencing for meetings on an experimental basis for three months.

Inuit were interested in broadcasting their traditions, lived culture and languages. These earlier pilots were launched in the hopes of laying "the groundwork for the implementation of an operational communications system structured to meet Northern needs" (Green and Simialak, 1981). The interactive videoconferencing and broadcasting trials provided Inuit with relevant Inuttitut content. Interactive meetings in Iqaluit received the highest rating, just slightly higher than films (Valaskakis et al, 1981). Inuit television programming about the land, elders, and children was particularly popular.

Intense political lobbying by TNI and ITC led to the reversal of government policies that promoted the narrowly defined national objectives that had sent satellites to "civilize" the North. In 1981, when the Anik B experiments were completed, Inuit proposed the first indigenous television network in the world. Later that year, TNI's sister organization, the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, was granted its license and became part of a pan-Inuit network of television production centres throughout the Northwest Territories, Northern Quebec and Labrador.

By 1982, a total of more than seven hours of Inuttitut language programming per week was delivered, using the CBC Northern Service. The target audience was Unilingual older Inuit, as well as those in the 22 to 45 age group, whose language skills were most threatened by acculturation, and children between the ages of seven and ten. (Roth and Valaskakis, 1989). Children's programming was the most direct effort to transmit language and culture, and probably the most effective (Rogers, personal communications).

Across the rest of the North, twelve other Native Communications Societies with a similar intent to preserve language and culture provide a variety of indigenous communications services. Funded through the federal government's Northern Native Broadcast Access Program, Inuit received over $2 million annually until the program underwent budgetary cutbacks in the 1990s. These cuts and inflation during the past ten years have reduced the capacity of broadcasters like TNI by nearly 50%.

Recent Developments

After ten years of sharing air time with the CBC Northern Service, Inuit and other northern broadcasters gained access to a dedicated satellite channel in 1992. Television Northern Canada now broadcasts 100 hours of programming per week, giving aboriginal programming priority and reaching all of northern Canada. It is a venture controlled by aboriginal people in partnership with Northern governments and private industry.

Twenty-five years of Inuit broadcasting have strengthened Inuit regional and national Inuit identities, and supported the political development of the Nunavik and Nunavut territories. In initially asserting their rights of refusal, their right to cultural privacy, the Inuit example represents a case for the maintenance of cultural rights of communication (Roth/Valaskakis, 1989). By linking their communities and regions through communications, Inuit experience offers a lesson that has wide application for Canadian society and for the information highway debates and policies.
By linking their communities and regions through communications, Inuit experience offers a lesson that has wide application for Canadian society and for the information highway debates and policies.
"Television was seen as a threat to our culture and lifestyle, but now these are the very things we can promote," said former IBC president Rosmarie Kuptana on the occasion of the launch of TVNC (1992). Not missing a beat, she spoke about Inuit and the newest medium. "The value of traditional skills is going to be demonstrated and reinforced, side-by-side with such modern survival skills such as computer literacy."

A year later, in 1993 Inuit began to experiment once again with interactive television in the delivery of three, 40-hour training courses produced by Atii Training Inc. A virtual classroom spanning 4,000 kilometers connected up to 70 participants across four time zones, demonstrating clearly to the three educational institutions involved that distance did not have to be a barrier to learning (Atii, 1994).

In 1994, IBC organized the Connecting the North Symposium, involving 400 participants and a large viewing audience in the North through TVNC. Taqramiut Nipingat's George Berthe and four other Inuit leaders were able to confer and dialogue with Aborigines in Australia, discussing a topic of mutual concern -- self-government and mining explorations -- a true demonstration that the highway can support cyber-diplomacy.

The collaboration of broadcasters, government and the private sector that created Connecting the North resulted in a number of exciting initiatives. The most important was the proposal of the Government of the Northwest Territories to purchase satellite bandwidth connectivity for 53 communities beginning in 1996, following New Brunswick's lead in supporting access to the highway.

In May, 1996, Inuit-owned Nunanet became the first Internet service provider in the Arctic to reach 25% of households as a subscriber base. Possibly the highest per capita use outside Silicon Valley. One hundred out of Nunanet's total of four hundred Iqaluit subscribers are Inuit. Due to the strong interest by Inuit and non-Inuit, several more Internet connections have become available even though the bandwidth to connect the North is the most expensive in North America.

Networking in Nunavik

The arrival of the Internet coincides with a growing interest by Inuit in the outside world and the desire for economic development, training and post-secondary education, improved access to the justice system, and increased efficiency and effectiveness in government administration.
Since the Connecting the North symposium, many Nunavik organizations have begun work on initiatives which employ these advanced technologies, incorporating their advantages and cost-saving features into regional and economic development plans -- first in-house and then for the region as a whole.

For example, Makivik Corporation has researched videoconferencing. The Federation of Cooperatives of Northern Quebec (FCNQ) Qilanguatuk and Nunavik Communications are in the process of installing two-way cable systems. FCNQ is now using point-of-sale terminals to manage their inventory and low-cost videophones to purchase carvings. The Kativik Regional Government has begun to investigate networking solutions and are training youth in Internet marketing. Health officials are studying the feasibility of purchasing a state-of-the-art telemedicine unit that would link Kuujjuaq with the Montreal General Hospital.

In the South, institutions such as McGill University have started developing applications which will allow services to be extended to Northerners. In October 1995, Unaaq Inc., a subsidiary of Makivik Corp., submitted proposals to the Community Access Program (CAP) of Industry Canada for the operation of three Internet telecentres in Nunavik during an 18-month trial period. These communities were the first Aboriginal communities of over 300 hundred across Canada selected by CAP. Unaaq Inc. transferred responsibility for the pilot projects to Taqramiut Nipingat Inc., an organization with a community media mandate and a clear interest in the Information Highway.

As the information age dawns on the tundra, the issues have emerged. How will Inuit manage and/or own this infrastructure? How will universal access be provided? And how will Inuit culture be strengthened through the new communications media?

On January 24, 1996, Taqramiut Nipingat invited all regional organizations (including those above) to form a regional telecommunications steering committee to share information and help coordinate development of infrastructure. This committee has since operated in an advisory capacity to TNI throughout the planning phases of the telecentre project. Community consultations and research, fund raising and planning during a six-month period resulted in enough support to place the order with Bell Canada to lease 64 kbit/s lines and begin stringing fiber optic cable to the main organizations.

On August 26, with a film crew from NBC on hand, TNI's president Eva Saqsariak posted the first message from Inuit to the world from Nunavik.Net:

"With this tool comes many opportunities to share and to learn.
The Internet can bring our people closer together as we can more freely
exchange ideas and friendship with other Inuit and with other peoples.
This can be a way Inuit can survive in the future."

TNI has since connected Kuujjuaq and Puvirnituk to Nunavik.Net and approached the consortia CANARIE, and the Canadian and Quebec governments to help link all Nunavik communities. While a number of project and special funds appear likely to keep the network going for a full year, long enough to achieve its immediate goal, nothing is clear about how TNI will maintain Nunavik.Net or the telecentres.

As the information age dawns on the tundra, the issues have emerged. How will Inuit manage and/or own this infrastructure? How will universal access be provided? And how will Inuit culture be strengthened through the new communications media? And it would be remise to forget to ask, how will the current souvernity debate impact on development? These questions are likely to be foremost in the minds of the policy makers and planners of the Nunavik section of the information highway.

It can be argued, the absence of government policy during earlier periods of decolonialization fostered the development of indigenous community media. Those were times of plenty and Inuit media was relatively easy to accommodate with the existing infrastructure. What role government and industry choose to play in response to the perceived need for a "full service" digital network in Nunavik will be anxiously awaited.


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