Communications in the North

Communications have played a special role in the North. Terrain, climate and distance made it difficult for northerners to communicate with each other or with southern Canada before the advent of electronic media. In traditional times, Inuit messages were passed through personal contact. Like other Indigenous peoples, Inuit had no written language when in the 16th century they encountered literate Europeans.

Early Interaction

The early explorers travelled in ships and encountered Inuit only by chance. As whalers and traders entered the North in the 19th century, they brought trade goods and technology which were given to Indigenous people in exchange for hunting and trapping. This required Inuit-non-Indigenous interaction, but there was little real communication.

In the late 1800s missionaries developed systems for writing Indigenous languages (see Cree Syllabics). By 1910 probably 98% of the Inuit in the eastern Arctic could read and write their own language, but because 3 different systems were used for writing Inuktitut, the dialect and regional differences among Inuit in Canada were reinforced.

Few books were translated into Inuktitut, and since most Inuit did not read or write English they could not participate in the economic and social changes southern agencies brought to the North. The military and economic significance of the North encouraged the introduction of electronic media.

Radio and Television

Radio reached the North in the late 1920s. Messages to and from southern Canada no longer had to rely on annual supply ships. By the 1930s, agencies in the North used high-frequency radio for medical emergencies and business, and broadcast radio kept them in contact with the South. Because programs were in English, early radio did little to encourage communication between Inuit and other Canadians.

The first Inuit-language broadcast occurred in 1960 and, by 1972, only 17% of CBC Northern Service shortwave programming was in Inuktitut (see Broadcasting, Radio and Television). Early television service in the North followed the same pattern.

In 1967 television programming was introduced to the first of 17 communities in the western Arctic through delayed transmission of videotapes in 4-hour packages. The Telesat Canada Act of 1969 supported satellite development in Canada to deliver telephone and CBC television service to remote areas of the country, including the North (see Satellite Communications).

Videotape service was extended to the eastern Arctic community of Frobisher Bay [Iqaluit] in 1972. The same year, Canada launched the Anik A satellite, which in 1973 began to transmit telephone, radio and television services to the North. In 1974 the CBC established the Accelerated Coverage Plan to bring broadcasting services to communities having 500 or more people as funds became available.

Some Inuit were enthusiastic about television; others joined Canadians concerned about the impact this compelling new medium would have on their language and culture (see Communications: Indigenous Peoples). The northern videotape service did not include Indigenous programs.

In 1972 the National Film Board established the first of 2 film workshops on Baffin Island. The Frobisher Bay [Iqaluit] workshop developed into Nunatsiakmiut Native Communications Society in 1975. Through this society, Inuit began to produce programs for CBC television. Before 1982, however, CBC carried less than one hour a week of Inuktitut programming, none of which could be broadcast live from the North.

It was clear that with electronic media, northerners could more readily communicate with each other and with the South, but Indigenous people were not benefiting fully from this potential. New projects encouraged their participation.

Northern Satellite Experiments

In 1976 Canada launched the first of 2 experimental satellite programs to test the uses of new communications technology. Interactive satellites brought tele-health and tele-education to remote northern communities. Inuit in northern Québec used the Hermes satellite and the earlier Anik A system to establish an interactive radio network among 8 communities. People in these communities could telephone their radio stations to have their questions or comments broadcast over the network.

In 1978 the Anik B satellite was launched and was used by Inuit in northern Québec and the NWT for interactive experiments including television broadcasting. In each of these regions the Anik B satellite linked 6 communities to form a small television network. Television was transmitted from only one community in each region, but people in all 6 communities could speak with each other and their messages were broadcast over the network.

This experiment, called the "Inukshuk Project," led to the formation of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation in the summer of 1981. IBC broadcasts several hours of Inuit-language television each week, including "live" northern television programming.

Indigenous initiatives in broadcasting were further encouraged by the 1980 Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission report of the Committee on the Extension of Service to Northern and Remote Communities. The report established the first framework for northern communication policy in Canada, and it stressed Indigenous participation in northern broadcasting.

The Modern Era

The 1980s brought many new communication services to the North. By 1981 all northern communities had satellite telephone service, and in 1983 the last of 57 Inuit communities received CBC television. All communities receive CBC radio and most have community radio stations through programs sponsored by CBC, by provincial or territorial governments or by the northern Indigenous communications societies.

In 1991, Television Northern Canada (TVNC) was licensed by the CRTC to establish an Indigenous television network in the Canadian North. Supported by the IBC, this dedicated northern satellite channel was shared by 6 Indigenous communications societies, the government of the Northwest Territories, Yukon College, the National Aboriginal Communications Society, other Indigenous organizations, CBC Northern Service and Telesat Canada. The satellite has uplinks in Iqaluit and Yellowknife, NWT, and Whitehorse, Yukon. TVNC reaches 94 communities which are located in 5 different time zones between the western Yukon and Labrador. TVNC broadcast in 15 different Indigenous languages to an audience of 100 000 people, over half of whom are of aboriginal ancestry.

In 1997, TVNC leadership decided to pursue the establishment of a television network dedicated to aboriginal programming and available throughout the country. Following a series of public consultations by the CRTC, the license for the "Aboriginal Peoples Television Network" (APTN) was granted in February of 1999 and 6 months later, APTN took to the air. Broadcasting in English, French and more than 14 Aboriginal languages, it can be received in 10 million homes.

In addition to network broadcasting, northern communities are increasingly connected through the information highway of telecommunications and computer services that stretches across the country.

Many Indigenous northerners still do not speak or read English. The Northern Native Broadcast Access Program, established in 1983, provides the facilities for Indigenous people to receive and send information in their own languages. With northern communication policy and programs, electronic media have brought northerners closer together, have assured their communication with other Canadians, and have encouraged Indigenous participation in changes taking place in the North.