"Surf's up!" NWT's Indigenous Communities Await a Tidal Wave of Electronic Information

Author

Fred Lepine, a Metis writer, musician, and philosopher who resides in Hay River, Northwest Territories (NWT), took his first ride down the information highway just two short years ago and he's never looked back. As one of the North's few homegrown cyberphilosophers, well versed on media culture, he has given much thought to how the North will change when the information highway reaches into the long-isolated, predominantly Aboriginal communities of the NWT. "You'll see a much more intense impact from [the Internet] over the next 20 years than what you've seen in the last 500 years" since the first Europeans had contact with Aboriginal people in the Americas. But before that can happen, the North must first be connected to the rest of the wired world.

When southern television signals first were received in the North, Aboriginal leaders like Rosemary Kuptana, former president of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation and Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (Canada's national Inuit political organization), described the social impact on Inuit by the phrase `neutron bomb television'-destroying the cultural identity of northern Aboriginal people without physically killing them. Will the Internet be another cultural neutron bomb? The jury is still out, but many northern webmasters are optimistic that the Internet will help preserve Aboriginal identity, language, and culture, not extinguish it. Wiring the North

By 1998, after an ambitious two-year `Manhattan project' of northern engineering, each and every one of the 59 communities with a population of only 63,000 hardy souls that dot the NWT's vast 3.4 million square km., will be connected to the World Wide Web. This engineering project is being undertaken by ARDICOM, a consortium of northern businesses that is majority owned by Aboriginal people of the North.

With new infrastructure needed to wire the North (mainly a series of `pipes' linking the communities to Yellowknife), it is hoped that the cost of providing essential government services will go down, while the quality of those services will go up (in 1993-94, the government of the NWT spent $17 million on travel, a cost that many government watchdogs hope will decrease once the North is fully connected to the Internet).

Right now, a small collection of ISPs (Internet service providers) link only a handful of the more techno-savvy communities to the Internet. These communities are mostly centers of regional government with significant non-Aboriginal populations. For the smaller fly-in communities, wiring the North will mark an end to their isolation, a defining feature of the region. Serving the Intelligentsia of the North

Northern News Services Ltd. (NNSL) copy editor James Hrynyshyn, one of Yellowknife's most wired netsurfers, observes that to date, the Internet affects mainly the non-Aboriginal intelligentsia of the NWT, as made evident from the interaction of on-line readers of NewsNorth, the flagship publication of NNSL. Hrynyshyn attributes the relatively disconnected status of the Aboriginal community in relation to the Internet to two factors: the isolation of most of the North's indigenous communities (in 1997 the last of the NWT's communities received telephone service for the very first time) and the cultural predisposition of people in those communities to be on the land, not in front of a computer terminal.

Hrynyshyn believes the long isolation of the Aboriginal community will quickly come to an end once wireless technology becomes more affordable and widespread, "when wireless connectivity starts to dominate the Internet, Aboriginal people will take to the Internet in droves." When this happens, many northerners anticipate a profound social impact on the Aboriginal communities of the North.

Franco Nogarin, webmaster at Cascade Publishing Ltd., which provides Internet, graphics, publishing, and computer services in Fort Smith, NWT, agrees with Lepine's prediction that Aboriginal people in the North will be profoundly affected by the Internet. Nogarin fully understands what a virtual community is, having seen his own community turned into a ghost town when mining operations closed, existing now only as a shared memory in the minds of its former residents. Nogarin thinks the Internet will one day be an essential a tool for northerners, but getting long-isolated communities to recognize the value or significance of the Internet may take some time and require a change in thinking. "Northern isolation tends to support local thinking," Nogarin observes. Moving from local thinking to a global perspective may bring many risks, including cultural assimilation and the continued erosion of Aboriginal languages. Of the nine Aboriginal languages spoken in the NWT, few are expected to survive into the next millennium. Some fear the Internet may hasten the loss of language, while others believe it might do the opposite. Virtual Communities and Tribal Identities

Hrynyshyn believes that `virtual communities' on the Internet are compatible with tribal units and identity, parallel in both size and in their nature. Like tribes, virtual communities maintain coherent group identities and resist assimilating into a larger society. Hrynyshyn thinks the Internet is an ideal match for Aboriginal tribes, providing the necessary economy of scale to support electronic publishing for such small constituencies. Hrynyshyn believes that because the Internet can support an admixture of audio, video, and text, transcending the print medium, it is ideally suited to the oral storytelling traditions of the Aboriginal community.

To illustrate this compatibility, Hrynyshyn points out that the small town of Inuvik (population 2,800) in the Mackenzie River Delta, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, has one of North America's fastest public Internet connections. This connection uses the local cable system's higher speed network, utilizing coaxial cable that is capable of carrying more data, at faster speeds, and with less loss of information than telephone lines. This system enables the Gwich'in nation and the Inuvialuit to take full advantage of the Internet. Already, the Gwich'in newspaper, Delta Voices publishes on-line, and the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik globally markets northern art on its new homepage. Though Hrynyshyn admits the world is racing headlong "toward an international mono-culture" with English as the lingua franca, he believes that "within this [global] culture, small subcommunities will continue to exist...Global culture does not mean an end to local culture." Hrynyshyn predicts that Aboriginal cultures will "find it easy to identify themselves in the global culture linked by the `net," and that the Internet will make it easier to "preserve artifacts of their culture" which will only make them stronger. Democratizing the Preservation of Cultural Artifacts

In the past, only large and wealthy institutions had the resources to maintain and store cultural artifacts. Hrynyshyn observes that with the Internet, "anybody with a $30 per month connection and a $1,000 computer can afford to store cultural artifacts." The Internet becomes a democratizing tool for Aboriginal cultures in the North, "regardless of [their] size and conventional power." Add the potential of digital video camcorders, which will enable Aboriginal communities to instantly share "last night's bowhead hunt" with Aboriginals around the world, and suddenly the speed and immediacy of the Internet can reinforce tribally-oriented communities.

Unlike television, Hrynyshyn says the Internet is "not about assimilation, since the virtual community becomes stronger." However, he finds that to some degree "it becomes less isolated and unique, losing its distinct...character because it is connected to everybody in the world." This presents a tradeoff for the Aboriginal community-losing a little distinctiveness while at the same time being strengthened.

While the Internet can strengthen specific elements of a culture, Hrynyshyn says it can induce pressures to "merge, interact, and standardize." This might happen among the many Inuit or Dene subgroups, whose languages share a similar foundation, but whose dialects differ in the detail. Hrynyshyn predicts that some dialects may merge, leaving fewer but stronger indigenous languages. Hrynyshyn says this is a natural evolution and transformation of language that cannot be stopped. "When languages disappear in the Internet future," Hrynyshyn believes "it won't be because one stomps another out, but because they merge." Some Aboriginal languages are already adopting standardized fonts to assist their transformation into written languages, losing a bit of their uniqueness on the way. Storing Cultural Information May Not Keep a Culture Alive

Jim Bell, editor of Nunatsiaq News, the bilingual (Inuktitut/English) newspaper that serves the two dozen Inuit communities of Nunavut, is less certain about the Internet's potential for preserving Aboriginal culture or language. He agrees with Hrynyshyn that the Internet augments one's ability to store information, allowing Aboriginal people to preserve an elder's words for all time. "But that has no affect on whether that elder's grandchildren will be speaking the same language." Though ideal as an information storage system, Bell questions whether storage contributes to cultural preservation. "Information storage doesn't necessarily preserve a culture, lots of cultures are perfectly preserved in museums but they're dead." He agrees that it is important to have effective information storage and that recording the words of a person no longer alive allows that person to speak forever, however, "if you want to keep a culture alive, you have to use it. The medium does not really matter."

Bell observes that other tools like CD-ROM, digital video discs, and other multimedia technologies may prove even more suitable as information storage tools for Aboriginal communities, particularly since they are effective tools for storing audio and visual information important to Aboriginal peoples. Lepine agrees, having focused mostly on multimedia applications in his work as an Aboriginal musician and writer. "Multimedia will be more valuable than the Internet," Lepine predicts. "The Internet is not good at...speaking language yet...and there are better ways to hard-code language-video, audio, graphic, and written ways of presenting it that will enhance ways of speaking." "The Internet Provides You with a Way of Fighting Back"

Bell believes that, unlike television and other Southern social influences which have threatened Inuit culture, the Internet is different. "The Internet provides you with a way of fighting back, a way to send the information the other way." As a result, Bell does not see the Internet "as the great river of alien cultural influences that is going to wipe out Inuit culture."

Lepine is not so sure of this, and believes that "the Internet has the ability to completely dismantle even strong cultures." He cites the legacy of television, which he observes has had a very, very powerful impact on the North. "Once you learn about other cultures and the outside world, the ideas and habits you take on can replace the relationships you establish with your own people in your own community." Lepine believes this "weakens [traditional] interpersonal relations," and as more and more indigenous people connect to the outside world, the more vulnerable northerners will become to `new habits' such as cyberporn and on-line gambling. The assimilating power of the Internet comes from its accessibility, according to Lepine, "when you live by yourself in an isolated community for so long and suddenly face an outside world that wants you, there's a big risk."

On the other hand, Lepine believes this risk is balanced by the many potential benefits the Internet presents to northern Aboriginal peoples, including "the ability to network Aboriginal peoples who have a common political, economic, or social struggle. "In addition, something Lepine has personally experienced is the ability for Aboriginal people to link family members separated by government or church. Lepine made contact with relatives as far away as Mexico City who date back to Louis Riel's Metis rebellion.

Lepine observes that the Internet "mimics traditional patterns of (Aboriginal) communication," either like gossip, a "discreet but effective way to affect local cultural dynamics, [or a] moccasin telegraph" by which people express themselves openly in a public forum. Lepine observes a similar duality of expression on the Internet, "you can choose to be anonymous, but you don't have to be." He adds that you "can go on-line and join a native chat room and celebrate your native heritage, too." While the Internet lacks any racial barriers and allows people to interact as people, as members of virtual communities free of a specific cultural identity, it also allows for the expression of cultural identity through ethnically-oriented virtual communities. "Round Thinking" in the Digital Age

In spite of the parallels to traditional Aboriginal thinking Lepine observes that the biggest pitfall of the Internet will be "the loss of our traditional way of thinking." Lepine believes the digital age "requires participants to think in a more goal-oriented, logical, and linear way of thinking." This is quite a contrast to traditional Aboriginal thought, "which involves a more interconnected, abstract, and circular sense that is often based in intuition, what I call `round thinking.'" Lepine observes that round thinking is "what kept us alive for thousands of years...and kept the planet flourishing...before Europeans came...The planet's sorry state is a result of the Western way of thinking where we separate ourselves from our own environment. If we are able to survive this new virtual world and virtual reality, we...must combine our traditional ways of thinking with acceptable Western technology." On-Line Publishing in the North

For northern journalists serving the Aboriginal communities of the NWT, the Internet has quickly become an important and effective tool of the trade. However, Hrynyshyn observed that most on-line readers of NewsNorth who interact through e-mail and discussion pages have been non-Aboriginal in its first year since going on-line. To date, eight NWT publications publish on-line: Delta Voices, serving the Gwich'in Nation; the NNSL family of newspapers, which include the Inuvik Drum, Deh Cho Drum, Yellowknifer, Kivalliq News, and NewsNorth; the Slave River Journal serving the Fort Smith region; and Nunatsiaq News, the first to take northern publishing on-line.

One of just three bilingual newspapers in the North that publish in an Aboriginal language, Nunatsiaq News uses a split format with the syllabic-based Inuktitut language on one side and English on the other. Bell says the impact of the Internet "was almost immediate" when Nunatsiaq News went on-line in September 1995. Bell says going on-line in September 1995. Bell says going on-line has brought Nunatsiaq News"a whole new set of readers, mainly people in Yellowknife," the territorial capital, who are now able to read Nunatsiaq News on the same day it is published. Beforehand, they had to wait as long as three weeks to get a copy from the eastern Arctic. Today, one-fifth of their readers read Nunatsiaq News on-line.

Practically, Bell says the Internet gives Nunatsiaq News "a tool to publish quicker and cheaper," and provides journalists with a new research tool. Journalists in Nunavut can access the federal budget on-line on the same day the Minister of Finance gives his budget speech. Bell states that "we now have access to the same information, available immediately, as in Ottawa," improving the quality of reporting and increasing the flow of information between decision-making centers like Ottawa, Yellowknife, and the isolated communities of Nunavut. Bell observes that early access to information over the Internet "opened my mind to the potential of electronically distributed information," and has concluded, like Hrynyshyn, that the Internet "equalizes governments and the people they govern. Suddenly, we have far more power to access, communicate, and distribute information among ourselves than we had before. It corrects the traditional power imbalance between governments and those they govern."

For the infrastructure-poor communities of Nunavut with no roads and a very brief summer shipping season, the Internet introduces a new way of distributing information across the entire territory. Hrynyshyn believes Nunavut is one step ahead of the western NWT in adapting to the Internet as an information provider. He cites the Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC), the organization planning the establishment of the new government of Nunavut, "which has put all of its primary documents and discussion papers on their website." NewsNorth taps into it for news, making NIC's homepage an important primary news source. Hrynyshyn observes that the government of Nunavut "doesn't even exist yet, but already it is using the Internet to assert itself within the larger social/political culture." To Hrynyshyn, this is evidence that a virtual community like Nunavut is as powerful on the Internet as an established government like the NWT.

Hrynyshyn observes that in the year since NNSL went on- line, there have been 30,000 hits with only 6% of the North wired. He says most of the people who surf the NNSL website are northerners, though there are readers from as far away as New Zealand. This suggests another duality of the Internet: fostering stronger local and regional virtual communities, while at the same time, allowing all groups to communicate with the world. Cyberelitism in the Information Age

One more benefit observed by all commentators on the Internet is that it is both inexpensive and faster than other forms of communication, though for cash-poor economies, a formidable barrier still exists, contributing to a form of `cyberelitism,' as observed by Bell, Lepine, and Nogarin. Bell observes that the social reality of the cash-poor Inuit communities of Nunavut means that "very few people have the tools to use the Internet." Bell believes access to the Internet is so limited in the Inuit communities because of low levels of literacy, a lack of computer and modem equipment in most Inuit homes, and the absence of enough money for telephone service and an Internet account in Nunavut. Only three of Nunavut's two dozen communities have ISPs -- all centers of government activity with significant non-Inuit populations. Also, Bell believes many people in the communities are still intimidated by computers which they perceive as a tool of technocrats from the South. "Unless [use of the Internet]is democratized," Bell says, "it will create two classes. If it remains in the hands of the elite, it will become a form of elitism, and that's really dangerous." Hrynyshyn is more optimistic, finding the relatively low cost of the Internet inherently democratizing. He believes it will only require the advent of affordable and widespread wireless Internet access to motivate more Aboriginal people to participate in the Internet. Waiting for the Information Highway

Last year, the government of the NWT requested proposals to build the infrastructure to wire the North in hopes of improving its services while reducing the costs of governing such a vast territory. Its decision to provide a northern company, ARDICOM, with the contract suggests a strong desire by the government to harness the Internet for uniquely northern purposes.

ARDICOM is now poised to bring the Internet to the 59 NWT communities in the next 600 days. Ken Todd, manager of ARDICOM is presently completing the `proof of concept' for the government "to demonstrate that the network can support the applications that government and other users want to run on it." Todd believes the Internet has a lot to offer the communities of the North, so long as "local people are able to take the technology and make it their own like native people did with television in the North."

In regions where most homes lack computers, Todd says the concept of `telecenters' has been introduced so people across the North can participate on the Internet "at little or no charge." ARDICOM will not itself be an ISP, but will simply put the network in place so community groups and existing ISPs can serve the entire North without having to purchase a satellite earth station to uplink directly, or access long distance telephone lines.

Nogarin, at Cascade Publications Ltd., is worried that ARDICOM's project could drive potential Internet subscribers away. Cascade, citing several instances of potential clients deciding to wait until the new network is up and running, has already invested $100,000 in a satellite uplink with six times the bandwidth the northern telephone company can offer. However, for the many communities where there are no ISPs, the arrival of the information highway will be facilitated by ARDICOM, bringing an end to their long isolation and, according to visionaries like Lepine, changing their world forever.

Margaret Gorman, Executive Director of the Denendeh Development Corporation, and board member of NASCo, one of the three partners that form ARDICOM, says the issues of concern for the Aboriginal community are ensuring that the system is used by the people of the communities; training local people to maintain the system; reducing the threats of negative influences like cyberporn and on-line gambling; developing northern Aboriginal content on the Internet; and identifying ways to use the Internet to serve the communities' needs such as marketing traditional arts and crafts.

Plans to provide an electronic technician's training course at Aurora College, the western NWT community college, have been developed and a program will likely be in place by 1998. Therefore, residents of the Aboriginal communities can gain the skills they need to service the new network and truly make it their own. Conclusion

Already, the North has gained a foothold on the information highway. The northern media has asserted a strong presence and several northern leaders and Aboriginal organizations have introduced homepages as a means of informing their constituents across vast distances. With new technologies emerging to disseminate oral and visual information, the medium will become better suited to the needs of Aboriginal culture, thus allowing people to talk to one another in their languages about their pasts and futures.

Until the North is wired in two years time, just how profoundly the Internet will affect the Aboriginal people of the North will remain the realm of the cyberphilosophers. Their thoughts are of the future, and their vision of a world where Aboriginal language and culture can be asserted and strengthened, makes waiting for the tidal wave of electronic information to come that much less worrisome. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue: