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.”