digital indigenous democracy

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.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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The Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) public hearing in Pond Inlet (Nunavut) to assess Baffinland’s revised Early Revenue Phase proposal and Environmental Review for the Mary River iron ore mining project.

Day 1 (January 27, 2014)

IsumaTV’s Digital Indigenous Democracy’s presentation by Zacharias Kunuk and Jonathan Frantz (in English)

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Inuit filmmaker uses multimedia to empower remote communities

Isolated communities join the political dialogue through Digital Indigenous Democracy initiative Culture

BY VULTURE BRANDON BARRETT
brandon@whistlerquestion.com 

I still vividly remember the first time I watched illustrious Nunavut filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk’s daring Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, the first film written, directed and acted entirely in the Inuktitut language.

Set in the frigid outdoors of Igloolik at the turn of the first millennium, Atanarjuat tells a centuries-old Inuit legend passed down orally from generation to generation. Shot in the Eastern Arctic wilderness, the film’s visuals are all-consuming and so thoroughly foreign to what the average movie-goer is accustomed to.

The highest grossing Canadian picture of 2002, Atanarjuat achieved what so many of the best films do: presenting a perspective that the viewer has never seen or better yet, never even knew existed.

It’s an understatement to say that the majority of Canadians don’t know much about Inuit culture, traditions and values — myself included. A more cynical view would be that most Canadians don’t really care to learn, but fortunately, Kunuk has committed to telling compelling, authentic Inuit stories told with the help of the Inuit themselves throughout his long career.

It’s a trend that Kunuk is continuing with one of the more innovative multimedia projects I’ve ever come across, called Digital Indigenous Democracy (DID), which aims to put the power of consensus into the hands of 10 remote Inuit northern communities. (I owe a huge debt to Globe and Mail reporter Robert Everett-Green for his meticulously researched article on this topic from Jan. 17.)

The concept was first formed in 2012 when an Inuit community on Baffin Island faced a $6-billion environmental review of a proposed iron mine. Thanks to Kunuk’s intervention, which saw him present dozens of call-in radio shows and video interviews with affected residents, the project has since been scaled back and even comes with a legal obligation to include future multimedia consultation.

The main issue for these isolated communities is a lack of affordable Internet service. That means residents in small Inuit enclaves often have to resort to communicating online using only text in a language many aren’t fluent in, barring full access to potential online resources and communication channels that could impact their political and social decision making process.

Digital Indigenous Democracy looks to level the playing field by installing comparatively cheap media players in 10 communities where residents can instantly stream over 5,000 videos in 50 different languages from the Isuma TV catalogue, a film company Kunuk co-founded. The collection is mostly driven by Inuit culture, and includes everything from musical performances to hunting clips to full-length feature films. It also gives the opportunity to Inuit filmmakers, like the film society currently thriving in the small town of Arviat, to upload and show their own work.

It’s an initiative from which the rest of Canada could learn a thing or two. Even in our current Internet age, with smartphone-sporting pre-teens and a culture of online oversharing, we need to ask ourselves if we’re really using the digital tools at our disposal in a productive manner.

Just as the outside world learned about the refreshing simplicities of Inuit life after Kunuk’s Atanarjuat, we can look back to those northern communities in order to glean some insight on how to exist and thrive in our own digital era.

 

© Copyright 2014, Whistler Question Story

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Zacharias Kunuk Creates Cultural Internet for the Inuits of Canada

By Bernadine Racoma 

The Inuit hamlet of Igloolik, the place where celebrated film producer and director Zacharias Kunuk, himself a member of the Inuit tribe, received his education, became the first site for an innovative high-technology cultural Internet broadcasting project two years ago. The Globe and Mail reported on January 22 that the project, called the Digital Indigenous Democracy (DID) will help give birth to a new breed of grassroots filmmaking. It is centered in 10 communities of the Nunavut and is expected to make a big impact, i.e.,

“It could have a big impact on the use of indigenous languages in digital media and on how isolated Northerners understand — and perhaps alter — the futures being dreamt for them in office towers in Calgary and Toronto.“

Zacharias Kunuk

Fifty-six year old Zacharias Kunuk is a Canadian Inuk director and producer. The multi-awarded director is widely known for “Atanarjuat,” the first dramatic feature film in Canada that was filmed entirely in the Inuktitut language. Inuktitut is also called Eastern Canadian Inuit or Eastern Canadian Inuktitut, one of Canada’s principal Inuit languages.

Kunuk is the co-founder and president of the Igloolik Isuma Productions, an independent Inuit production company, which is the first in Canada. His partners include Norman Cohn, Paul Apak Angirlirq and Paul Qulitalik.

Climate change project

He was the grand winner in nine film festivals around the world, including Cannes. He became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002. With Ian Mauro of the School of Environmental Studies of the University of Victoria, he co-founded the Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change Project. The project aims to collect information on the impact of climate change on the Inuit environment and culture from the Inuit elders’ perspective. The project will be turned into a film later and they have already submitted a project video to the United Nations in 2009.

Big plans for the Inuit community

While his cultural Internet project was started two years ago, Kunuk is more inspired than ever because of the technological advances in communication. The changes that have happened in the past two years provided Kunuk with the experience and the means to protect and possibly strengthen the language and lifestyle of his people. He and his partners want to save languages that have survived for 4,000 years.

Kunuk wanted to build an Internet that is capable of working audio-visually so that his people will be able to use the Inuit language. Their project was started with an initial $1 million grant from the experimental stream of Canada Media Fund. They were hampered by the low-bandwidth at that time, forcing the Northerners to use text in English to communicate. They are in the process of installing cheap DID media player to stream programs locally from the Isuma catalog. The locals in the 10 communities are learning to create films and some are already into it, putting their work in their own local playlists. Isuma plans to put up a TV station as well.

The Digital Indigenous Democracy got its start after Zacharias Kunuk intervened formally during the proposed Baffinland iron mine hearings in 2012. He presented Isuma video interviews and call-in radio shows, arguing that the multimedia conversations clearly indicated the obligation to consult and inform the indigenous people. Isuma later broadcast the Baffinland mine hearings in Pond Inlet and Igloolik live, which prompted the inclusion of multimedia consultations with the indigenous community throughout the mining project.

www.daynews.com

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Celebrated son of Igloolik creates cultural Internet for his people

BY ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN

The Globe and Mail

The current, community-curated Arviat playlist includes videos of last summer’s Rockin’ Walrus Arts Festival in Igloolik; the recent Kunuk documentary Inuit Cree Reconciliation; and Madeline Ivalu’s 2007 film Umiaq, about a group of elders who decide to build a traditional sealskin-covered boat. The playlists change, but the content is overwhelmingly about Northern lifestyle and language – two things that the resource rush stands to change drastically.

“We’re experimenting with how you can cross not just a digital divide, but a divide in perception and world view,” Cohn says. “To have the [resource] debate all in the extraction language, rather that in the land language, already makes it a lopsided debate. You have very limited ways in which local opinions can be expressed. [DID] can completely change the rules of the participation game, the way the Berger Inquiry did in the Northwest Territories 40 years ago, when it levelled the playing field between indigenous communities and the Alaska pipeline.” It’s not enough, he says, to write information pamphlets in Inuktitut syllabics, which were invented by missionaries as a way to teach the Bible and aren’t widely understood among people under 60.

It can be tricky to set up a DID channel in a small place that you can’t reach by road and that is seldom visited by cable technicians who may be based in Winnipeg. A media player was installed in a public library in an Arctic Bay school last summer, for example, but in October the library abruptly moved to a different location, and there was no one around who could move the service, which will probably stay down until spring. “When it’s minus 40, you may not want one of your guys climbing a pole to attach a cable,” says Stéphane Rituit, a producer at Isuma TV’s Montreal office.

In Arviat, the connection was delayed while Isuma worked out the contractual details with cable provider Arctic Co-ops, which balked at the idea of letting local people (“third parties,” in contract language) upload their own content directly to the system.

“My biggest frustration was to ask Arviat to slow down,” says Rituit. “You get people totally enthusiastic. They say, ‘Hey, let’s do it, go live on air, play music,’ and then you have to call them and say, ‘I’m sorry, guys, actually we can’t do that,’ ” – because it wasn’t in the cable contract. More recently, uploads in Arviat have been stalled by a technical glitch that Rituit is trying to sort out from Montreal via Skype.

Digital Indigenous Democracy got started after Kunuk made a formal intervention at the 2012 hearings into the proposed Baffinland iron mine at Mary River, at which he presented 71 Isuma call-in radio shows and video interviews about the proposal. He argued that this kind of multimedia conversation was key to the legal obligation to inform and consult with indigenous people. Isuma did live audio broadcasts of the hearings in Igloolik and Pond Inlet, allowing anyone to listen to proceedings that are usually restricted to bureaucrats and industry reps. The licence for the Baffinland mine ultimately included conditions mandating multimedia consultation throughout the project. (Isuma will broadcast a second round of Baffinland hearings from Jan. 27 to 31, with evening talk shows about each day’s proceedings hosted by Kunuk.)

That summer, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association asked Isuma to set up community channels in Cambridge Bay and Taloyoak, where mining activity is heating up. Julia Ogina, KIA programs co-ordinator, says four or five filmmakers in Cambridge Bay have been trained to make broadcast-ready content with community-owned equipment. “It started with the idea of getting our languages and culture more into the home,” she says, referring both to Inuktitut and to Inuinnaqtun, a dialect spoken around Taloyoak.

She knows people are watching, because the moment something goes wrong with the feed, the station’s Facebook page fills up with complaints. The current playlist in Cambridge Bay includes a show about walrus hunting in the Baffinland mine area and Picture of Light, Peter Mettler’s 1994 documentary about the northern lights.

Cohn says DID is inexpensive and scalable, and could extend into any number of indigenous communities here and abroad, if money and volunteers are available. One source of future funding could be the resource companies themselves. “One million dollars doesn’t go very far if you’re thinking about 10 communities, or all 26 Nunavut communities, or all the Northern communities that could or should be wired into this network,” he says. “But we’ve been counting out the pennies and wondering if we can meet next week’s payroll, for the last 25 years.”

The current, community-curated Arviat playlist includes videos of last summer’s Rockin’ Walrus Arts Festival in Igloolik; the recent Kunuk documentary Inuit Cree Reconciliation; and Madeline Ivalu’s 2007 film Umiaq, about a group of elders who decide to build a traditional sealskin-covered boat. The playlists change, but the content is overwhelmingly about Northern lifestyle and language – two things that the resource rush stands to change drastically.

“We’re experimenting with how you can cross not just a digital divide, but a divide in perception and world view,” Cohn says. “To have the [resource] debate all in the extraction language, rather that in the land language, already makes it a lopsided debate. You have very limited ways in which local opinions can be expressed. [DID] can completely change the rules of the participation game, the way the Berger Inquiry did in the Northwest Territories 40 years ago, when it levelled the playing field between indigenous communities and the Alaska pipeline.” It’s not enough, he says, to write information pamphlets in Inuktitut syllabics, which were invented by missionaries as a way to teach the Bible and aren’t widely understood among people under 60.

It can be tricky to set up a DID channel in a small place that you can’t reach by road and that is seldom visited by cable technicians who may be based in Winnipeg. A media player was installed in a public library in an Arctic Bay school last summer, for example, but in October the library abruptly moved to a different location, and there was no one around who could move the service, which will probably stay down until spring. “When it’s minus 40, you may not want one of your guys climbing a pole to attach a cable,” says Stéphane Rituit, a producer at Isuma TV’s Montreal office.

In Arviat, the connection was delayed while Isuma worked out the contractual details with cable provider Arctic Co-ops, which balked at the idea of letting local people (“third parties,” in contract language) upload their own content directly to the system.

“My biggest frustration was to ask Arviat to slow down,” says Rituit. “You get people totally enthusiastic. They say, ‘Hey, let’s do it, go live on air, play music,’ and then you have to call them and say, ‘I’m sorry, guys, actually we can’t do that,’ ” – because it wasn’t in the cable contract. More recently, uploads in Arviat have been stalled by a technical glitch that Rituit is trying to sort out from Montreal via Skype.

Digital Indigenous Democracy got started after Kunuk made a formal intervention at the 2012 hearings into the proposed Baffinland iron mine at Mary River, at which he presented 71 Isuma call-in radio shows and video interviews about the proposal. He argued that this kind of multimedia conversation was key to the legal obligation to inform and consult with indigenous people. Isuma did live audio broadcasts of the hearings in Igloolik and Pond Inlet, allowing anyone to listen to proceedings that are usually restricted to bureaucrats and industry reps. The licence for the Baffinland mine ultimately included conditions mandating multimedia consultation throughout the project. (Isuma will broadcast a second round of Baffinland hearings from Jan. 27 to 31, with evening talk shows about each day’s proceedings hosted by Kunuk.)

That summer, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association asked Isuma to set up community channels in Cambridge Bay and Taloyoak, where mining activity is heating up. Julia Ogina, KIA programs co-ordinator, says four or five filmmakers in Cambridge Bay have been trained to make broadcast-ready content with community-owned equipment. “It started with the idea of getting our languages and culture more into the home,” she says, referring both to Inuktitut and to Inuinnaqtun, a dialect spoken around Taloyoak.

She knows people are watching, because the moment something goes wrong with the feed, the station’s Facebook page fills up with complaints. The current playlist in Cambridge Bay includes a show about walrus hunting in the Baffinland mine area and Picture of Light, Peter Mettler’s 1994 documentary about the northern lights.

Cohn says DID is inexpensive and scalable, and could extend into any number of indigenous communities here and abroad, if money and volunteers are available. One source of future funding could be the resource companies themselves. “One million dollars doesn’t go very far if you’re thinking about 10 communities, or all 26 Nunavut communities, or all the Northern communities that could or should be wired into this network,” he says. “But we’ve been counting out the pennies and wondering if we can meet next week’s payroll, for the last 25 years.”

 

www.theglobeandmail.com

 

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Nunavut Independent Television is Canada's first artist-run media centre located in a remote Inuit community. Based in Igloolik, NITV promotes creation and exhibition of Inuit video art linking Nunavut communities through internet television channels on IsumaTV. Local access internet-TV and media training increase production and distribution of Inuktitut and other Aboriginal-language video and media activism. 

NITV is one of the founding members of IsumaTV, a collective multimedia platform for Inuit and Aboriginal media worldwide.

NITV also is one of the founding partners in Digital Indigenous Democracy, an effort to bring global partners into a working collaboration through new media and socio-political networking.

As a Northern Internet Distributor NITV on IsumaTV is recognized as an Eligible Broadcaster by the Canada Media Fund to trigger financing from the Aboriginal Fund Envelope. More information at nitv@isuma.tv

Check out NITV (Igloolik community-TV 1995–2007)

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UPDATE TONIGHT Wednesday June 6th 8-10pm: Walrus, Wildlife and Baffinland?
• What do hunters think about Baffinland’s supertankers and marine mammals?
• Will shipping through Foxe Basin damage the wildlife? Is it safe?

Thursday June 7th 8-10pm: Have Inuit Had Their Say?
• Do you understand Baffinland’s Environmental Impact Statement?
• Are you informed? Do your opinions count?

Listen at Live Radio  Call-in 1.819-934-8080, or 8082.

Get your opinions on the record.
Call-in radio shows will be submitted to NIRB July Public Hearings as part of DID’s Formal Intervention led by Zacharias Kunuk and human rights lawyer Lloyd Lipsett

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From Nunatsiaq News www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/65674are_qia_nirb_and_governments_ignoring_pangnirtung/

May 30th letter to the editor, written by Andrew Nakashuk and Levi Ishulutak of Pangnirtung:

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