Norman Cohn

DID in the News!

On Their Terms: A Digital Project to Give Inuit Say in Developers' Arctic Ambitions

BY Elisabeth Fraser

A new project in Canada’s north is attempting to bridge the digital divide facing Inuit communities. In doing so, it hopes to give them a say as developers move to take advantage of their resource-rich land.

Digital Indigenous Democracy (DID) is an effort to bring the community empowerment of new media technology into remote low-bandwidth indigenous communities in Nunavut, across Canada, and around the world,” says Norman Cohn, an award-winning Canadian filmmaker who is also the project co-director, with partner Zacharias Kunuk, an Inuk filmmaker.

The idea is to provide high-speed Internet access to Inuit living in northern communities, where extremely low bandwidth access makes surfing the net a slow and cumbersome task. “These people, who most need access to these networks, have the worst cost-per-bandwidth in the civilized world,” says Cohn.

Life in the Northern communities where Canada’s Inuit live can be challenging. Traditionally, the Inuit are a hunting society. However, nowadays both global warming and opposition from animal-rights groups are negatively affecting the hunt. There are high levels of poverty, substance abuse, and suicide. There is a housing shortage, and high levels of family violence, as well as chronic health problems like diabetes. The remote and vastly scattered locations of these villages carry distinct challenges as well, including sky-high prices on basic goods. Most places are hard to access from the south, accessible via boat during the summer, or by expensive flights year-round. And, despite federal investment to improve bandwidth access in these communities, the Internet remains very slow.

Just how slow is it? “Most people can remember how the Internet was when they first tried it out five or ten years ago, and how much faster it is now,” explains Cohn. “Use of the Internet we take for granted right now is only possible because our bandwidth has increased by hundreds of thousands of times, and at a low cost. Those speed increases have not impacted northern Inuit communities. Their Internet is among the slowest and most expensive … There is a digital divide, certainly in the Canadian North, as much as in Bangladesh.”

Canada’s Inuit are one of three Canadian Aboriginal groups (the others are the Métis and First Nations). They are somewhat unique amongst Indigenous peoples in North America, because they have negotiated a self-governing agreement with the federal government of Canada. Whereas Canadian and U.S. First-Nations people often live on government reserves and receive government assistance or a special tax status, Inuit are by and large self-sufficient.

Cohn says the project is essential to help Inuit protect their rights in a new age of resource extraction. “The origins of this project are in the evolution of two enormous world developments. The one is the evolution of new media technology and its potential for social networking and political change, which we’ve seen in the Middle East,” Cohn says, referencing the Arab Spring. “And this intersects with the evolution of global warming, which has created an increase in natural resource development in the Canadian Arctic.”

Digital Indigenous Democracy has been financed and tested around a specific giant mining development (the “Mary River Project”) by the Baffinland company.

“If (the development) goes forward in its full capacity, it would be the largest mine ever in Canada,” says Cohn. DID was created in the context of Baffinland’s ongoing environmental review process, which involves consultation with local stakeholders. These talks have produced an Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement, as required by law under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.

“Our project was proposed and financed to test out this technology as a way of improving Inuit communities’ ability to participate in the decision-making process of such an enormous development that will impact these communities forever,” Cohn says. “So, we had a compelling technological concept for equal justice, but we also had a compelling urgent need for that project to take place as soon as possible.”

Started in April 2011 via Canada Media Fund financing, Digital Indigenous Democracy went live one year later, in April 2012. It runs on the ISUMA TV platform, created by Cohn and co. in 2008. The multimedia website features photographs and government information documents, as well as audio and video recordings, in English and in Indigenous languages like Inuktitut.

In addition to putting forward local content, in the form of radio programming, films and documentaries, and community news,DID has played an active part in the local consultations involving the Baffinland project. A series of radio call-in shows allowed locals to ask experts questions about the development, and Baffinland feedback collected via DID has been complied into a report, which will be presented in the next round of public hearings, tentatively scheduled to take place in mid-October.

Lloyd Lipsett is a human rights lawyer who has been participating in the public consultation process surrounding the Baffinland project. He took part in radio call-in shows the DID group organized in Igloolik, Nunavut, to answer questions and inform locals about the Baffinland project, in English and Inuktitut.

“If you want the people to be confident that the mine is benefitting them, they need to have the information to make that judgment. It’s important to recognize that the movement towards transparency in the (extractive industry) is really picking up steam,” says Lipsett, who notes the Canadian government has announced it will pass binding regulations ensuring mining companies have greater disclosure towards various levels of government, something the United States and European Union have already done.

Canadian constitutional law and international law now explicitly confirms Indigenous people have the right to be informed and consulted about any resource development that impacts their lands and their communities. According to Lispett, the new approach towards consultation offered by DID is a benefit to locals and developers alike.

Most human-rights interventions involving extraction projects happen after development has started, when things are perceived to be going badly. “Getting involved in public hearings before the project has taken place; you are taking a proactive approach,” says Lispett. “You’re dealing with all the different stakeholders, including the company itself. To talk to them in a proactive, forward-looking manner, is much more constructive then pointing your finger after, and saying, “You’re doing this wrong, you’re violating this right, or that right…We’re offering you suggestions as to how you can develop this mine in a way that is respectful to people.”

The economic stakes are significant, too."The wealth in the arctic is enormous,” says Cohn. “It’s sort of like the new Congo, but suddenly much more accessible than it ever was before. “The world has changed since King Leopold went into the Congo, but only if technology helps people take advantage of those changes. (DID) is the only way Indigenous people will get a real fair seat at the negotiating table, dividing up what everyone agrees are trillions of dollars.”

Frances Abele is a Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration at Carleton University. She is familiar with the project. She touts the community-building aspect of DID. “If you haven’t been to the North, it’s very hard to picture just how far apart everything is,” she says. “To allow people to speak to each other in real time is a really powerful change in order to have people talk about their common interests, and politics.”

“The local radio has been very, very, important for a long time, it’s the main way that people find out what’s going on, and they listen to that every day,” says Abele. “The genius of what Norman and Zacharias are doing is that they’ve been able to build on that network to create these communities.”

Mark Airut is the manager of the Igloolik radio station, now run by ISUMA since last May. He is Inuk, and echoes Abele’s praise for DID. “I think it’s really great, lots and lots of people are now following us, and now they listen to our radio all over the world,” he says. He says since ISUMA took over, the station’s workers have gone from being voluntary to paid staff, and many locals say ISUMA radio is now all they listen to. “We’re doing our best work on educational stuff,” says Airut. “It’s really successful.”

Currently, Cohn estimates the project is two-thirds completed. “Our website will play at high speed in what will eventually be ten indigenous communities,” he says. ISUMA has been hooking people up since the spring, and will continue to do so during the fall.

Underlying the entire project is the principal of open data and transparency as a tool to combat inequality. “Indigenous people see these developments as the only chance they have to get out of poverty and into the 21st century,” says Cohn. “If all the people involved are sharing in the exploitation of the resources, then it’s not pejorative. If the people involved are being exploited, then its pejorative … Today, you cannot get away with that level of inequality unless it’s hidden from public view.”

Cohn believes DID can be a powerful tool to give Indigenous people their fair share of the pie. “If people have those tools, you cannot deny them those rights,” he says. “These communities are sitting on mountains of minerals, of gold, of uranium.” He sees a future for this project in Indigenous communities throughout the world, and notes it is in developer’s interest to properly inform and consult, or risk huge lawsuits down the road.

How much the Inuit will eventually profit from the Baffinland development remains to be seen, but Cohn is hopeful. “Indigenous people are not genetically impoverished,” he says. “If everyone owned the land they were living on, Inuit people could quite very well be rich,” he argues. “Why are Inuit peoples more like Palestinians than Saudi Arabians? In 2013, you can’t do that to people, unless you’re doing it in the dark.”

Elisabeth Fraser is a freelance Canadian journalist. She lives in Montreal.

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