Inuits in Arctic Canada Use Internet to Connect to Each Other

Inuits in Arctic Canada use the Internet to pass along traditions and bridge a generation gap

5 min read

It's not easy to get to Arctic Bay, a Canadian Inuit village of 700 that lies along a north Baffin Island inlet by the Northwest Passage, 700 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. The Akademic Ioffe--a Russian research vessel leased for tourists by the Darien, Conn., cruise line Quark Expeditions--docks at the former mining community of Nanisivik to restock our drinking water. From there, it's another hour by school bus over 32 km of harsh snow-swept terrain to Arctic Bay, where village leaders await us--100 or so curious tourists--to demonstrate their Inuit traditions.

There's warmth to the residents that offsets the chilly temperatures and bleak surroundings. But Arctic Bay's real novelty lies less with honoring its past and more in gracefully bridging it with a rapidly changing present. The way the Inuit here have used the Internet to pass down their culture could be a precursor to the real test of integrating traditions and technology with a coming commercial overhaul of the area.

The Canadian Arctic is the focus of increasing international debate--in particular, who should control shipping traffic through the Northwest Passage, the latitudinal throughway between Greenland and Alaska. Because of global warning, the passage, once covered in ice for some 10 months of the year, has been nearly ice-free for most of the past two. The result is increased tourism and a more accessible shortcut that could shave thousands of dollars and 8000 to 16 000 km off shipping routes between Northern Europe and East Asia. In an effort to emphasize its sovereignty in this region, Canada is building its first deep-water Arctic port at Nanisivik, as well as a commercial airport nearby, which will bring an influx of jobs and workers--as well as social issues--not to mention technologies involving fuel storage, increased Internet bandwidth, cellphone towers, and lasers to track passing ships. Arctic Bay is preparing its youth to straddle both worlds without an identity crisis.

Arctic Bay is spartan, with the odd all-terrain vehicle putting along gravel roads and huskies barking next to rectangular single-floor wooden houses on two-meter-high platforms to account for the winter snowfall. Suddenly children wearing sneakers and bundled in jeans and winter jackets--although it's still late summer--appear from alleyways and buildings to check out our swarm of orange Gore-Tex parkas and pants and view their portraits on our digital cameras.

PHOTO: Johanna Wandel


Arctic Bay youth learn to use multimedia programs during a training night at the Inuujaq School.

We're slowly herded by town educators into the school gymnasium, where teenagers eagerly demonstrate traditional Inuit music, call-and-response throat singing, and Arctic games--physical feats that test strength, agility, and balance. Later, a village elder holds court in a small qamaq, a traditional hut made from whalebone, driftwood, and sealskin, and held together with moss and frozen mud. At 87, Qappik Attagutsiak is the oldest person in Arctic Bay and uses this space for solitude and healing workshops. She is elfin and soft-spoken, sitting cross-legged beside a multiflamed stone lamp called a quilliq, fueled in the past from seal fat, and today, from Crisco.

”When the Internet first came out, there was less interest in traditional knowledge,” says Attagutsiak in the Inuit language of Inuktitut, through a translator. ”But now that the Internet has been around for some time, people are starting to get back to learning traditional ways. It's starting to balance.” She laughs when asked if she's tried surfing the Web. ”I use my brain as a computer. That's enough.”

Dial-up Internet first appeared in Arctic Bay in 1998, through a public-private network, Ardicom, designed to cyberlink the roughly two dozen communities in Nunavut, Canada's northernmost territory, which are connected solely by air and phone but not roads. For two years, the entire community shared two computers at the Inuujaq School, for local K�12 students by day and village residents by night. A US $30 000 federal grant got it up and running, various community groups supported it, and local youth ran it and guided new users.

In 2000, a private service provider, Polarland, brought the Internet into homes, with 56-kilobit-per-second dial-up service linked via satellite to servers 1600 km away in Yellowknife. Two years later, the communal computer rooms expanded to 24 computers--a mixture of Dells, IBMs, and Macs--at the Inuujaq School and Nunavut Arctic College in nearby Arviat. Finally, in 2005, limited high-speed service arrived with Qiniq, a wireless DSL satellite network. Now nearly 80 percent of the homes in Arctic Bay shell out $60 to $400 a month for bandwidth ranging from 256 Kbps to 768 Kbps. E-mail messages and Skype are replacing the phone, which can cost from $200 to $400 month, because landlines still require a satellite link between phone networks. Cellphone service is not available yet.

”When we first got the Internet in our homes, there were hardly people out,” says Anna Qaunaq, the village's economic development officer. ”They were on the computer for hours on end. I was one of them. But it's been here for a few years now, and we've tried to make the best of it.”

Since then, village educators not only tried to catch up but tried to use the Internet to plug a generation gap that threatened to form between youngsters craving the Web's celebrity culture and elders trying to pass on their traditions.

For centuries, the life of these indigenous Arctic nomads revolved around hunting and gathering; interconnected communities took care of one another. But clashing values with Canada's European-based culture and accelerated social change in the last half-century have physically and mentally displaced the Inuit population, which suffers Canada's worst alcoholism and suicide rates.

Nunavut Youth Consulting, the village nonprofit agency that had lobbied for and has been overseeing the growing Internet access, began a series of programs using multimedia to teach teens about tradition and bring youth and elders together. The video club, which now boasts some 30 members, ages 12 to 25, creates and posts productions--including a satirical news show and rap video about Inuit life--on YouTube. A traditional mapping project, cosponsored by Carlton University in Ottawa and Nunavut Arctic College and funded with nearly $130,000 from government grants, has kids creating maps through Google Earth of some 300 traditional Inuit camps around Arctic Bay with names, photos, GPS coordinates, and related stories from elders.

”Some of the elders feel like if they press the wrong button on a computer, it will explode, but they're less afraid if they have a teenager beside them guiding them,” says Ron Elliott, adult educator for Nunavut Arctic College and cofounder of Nunavut Youth Consulting. ”For the elders, it's something they can keep busy with, since they can't go out as much. Teaching gives youth a sense of empowerment, and they develop computer skills. We're also finding ways to use the Internet to create home-based businesses. It's amazing how tech-savvy people here are. But Inuit people are very visual and hands-on, so multimedia is a perfect teaching tool.”

The strategy has had a noticeable effect on the Arctic Bay youth, mainly to visiting government officials and instructors who come away impressed by how well many of them take on adult responsibilities.

Even the youngest make the transition between traditional and modern worlds easily. Emerging from the demonstration on Inuit games and music, a boy of about 10 tugs at my jacket.

”Where are you from?” he asks in stilted English.

”Hollywood!” I answer.

His eyes light up. ”Ooooh. Do you know Hillary Duff?”

About the Author

Susan Karlin, a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum, has also written for The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly . She lives in Los Angeles.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions