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Part Three: Communities in Cyberspace

How Comfortably Does the Internet Sit on Canada’s Tundra? Reflections on Public Access to the Information Highway in the North

Lorna Roth


Much of the recent discourse in Canadian communication studies has focused on the development of the information highway, the Internet, and the ways in which minority constituency groups may gain equitable access to its common routes. One of the assumptions underlying current discussions it that everyone would automatically want to be linked to the information highway in order not to be left behind. Using case study materials from Canada’s North, this paper will examine several ways in which First Peoples have intervened in the broader Canadian debates to examine their own cultural, political, and economic objectives and goals in an effort to construct an infrastructure reflecting their unique information needs. First, it will focus on the ground-breaking teleconference, Connecting the North, which took place in 1994 to discuss Northern priorities and services. Second, I shall look at the more recent pilot projects and plans for the extension of the information highway into the North. Evidence from the Northern planning process supports a more deliberative decision making approach consistent with those like Harold Innis (1951) and Heather Menzies (1996), both of whom argue for a slowing down period in which to contemplate long-term technical priorities and policy strategies, as well as the information highway’s possible implications for (cross)cultural communication patterns in the future

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1In 1974, Brenda Maddox introduced a book chapter titled “From CATV to Infinity” with the following passage (quoted in Streeter, 1987: 175):

An almost religious faith in cable television has sprung up in the United States. It has been taken up by organizations of blacks, of consumers and of educational broadcasters, by the Rand Corporation, the Ford Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the electronics industry, the Americans for Democratic Action, the government of New York City, and – a tentative convert – the Federal Communications Commission. The faith is religious in that it begins with something that was once despised – a crude makeshift way of bringing television to remote areas – and sees it transformed over the opposition of powerful enemies into the cure for the ills of modern urban American society.

2In 1987, Thomas Streeter used this same passage to introduce his critical and insightful analysis of the cable industry entitled, “The Cable Fable Revisited: Discourse, Policy, and the Making of Cable Television,” in which he argued that the democratic promise of a large body of discourse used in the early seventies to describe new technologies and, in particular, cable, created “a sense of expert consensus, of unity and coherence where there actually was a variety of conflicting motivations, attitudes, and opinions.” (Streeter, 1987: 175) This shared feeling of awe and excitement “inspired a sense of urgency, of possibility, and of a need for action, for response” in relation to the technology (Streeter, 1987: 175). At the time, the Utopian strain in the discourse about cable technology could not be ignored. Cable was described as having the “potential to rehumanize a dehumanized society, to eliminate the existing bureaucratic restrictions of government regulation common to the industrial world, and to empower the currently powerless public” (Streeter, 1987: 181). Of course, as we are all aware, cable’s performance did not live up to its discursive promise.

3This retrospection is significant in that it gives us a critical context for rethinking current discourses about the information (super)highway and reminds us that the information highway debates are really only part of a longer historical trajectory of talk about new technologies and their impact on our lives.

4In post-modern society, media have become central instruments and institutions of the public sphere – an arena where competing constituency groups strive for the right to be taken as representative of public opinion, of public interest (Raboy, 1990: xii). Access to the media, therefore, is crucial to the democratic promise of public life. Universal access to affordable technologies is at the heart of communication scholars’ thinking about democracy and empowerment. It is what gives cultural communities the power to represent themselves to others. It is what enables the voices of minorities to be heard, after long and worthwhile struggle for the implementation of their communication rights. The many stories of the struggle for universal access make it clear that neither media technology nor policy makers are politically innocent.

5As Nicholas Garnham so aptly notes, the developing relationships between the media and politics are often problematic “because they fail to start from the position that the institutions and processes of public communication are themselves a central part of the political structure and process.” (Garnham, 1986: 37) Like Garnham, I want to argue that shifts in media discourse, structure, and policies, whether these stem from economic or technological developments or from public intervention, are properly political issues of deep significance and should be carefully debated in an informed manner. Central to this debate in Canadian society are competing economic and political views of technology as either a private commodity to be owned and used as a basis for profit, or as a public resource, to be shared as a universally accessible public service. Although Canadian governmental discourses promote public access in principle (Information Highway Advisory Council Reports), its decisions demonstrate a favouring of competitive practices and markets as means of expanding the information highway throughout the country. Although market forces can work to extend the information highway in densely populated urban areas, this is not so easy in Northern and remote communities, where government subsidies are required to equalize access to residents. This essay will draw on illustrative evidence from two cases in Northern Canada to argue that without public subsidization and cross-cultural adaptation, the Information Highway in the North will likely be subjected to repeated market failures. Small, culturally – and linguistically – diverse populations, prohibitive costs of telecommunications services, and lack of existing infrastructure, preclude the universal extension of an information infrastructure based exclusively on market forces.


  • 1 Nunavut and Nunavik are vast areas. Nunavut consists of the portion of the former Northwest Territo (...)

6The Inuit of Nunavut and Nunavik Inuit1 have a special place in Northern communications history. They have been television and radio pioneers in the past and are able to draw on their experience in planning initiatives with regard to current technology access. In some ways they are a model constituency group: they are situated at a common distance from the institutions of power, have common interests in retaining their communication rights; have participated successfully in configuring Television Northern Canada, a pan-Northern television distribution service; and they have a common range of cultural and linguistic practices.

7There were many initial barriers to overcome in bringing improved telecommunications facilities to the North. Geographically and atmospherically, these include: vast distances separated by huge expanses of water, mountains, permafrost (a condition that makes it impossible to set up a microwave system), atmospheric interference, tropospheric scatter, islands. Essentially, the western regions were able to establish communications systems sooner than the eastern areas because of road accessibility. They could be connected to the south via microwave towers. The eastern Arctic had to wait until the Anik satellite became operational in 1973 before it was able to receive adequate telephone and live broadcasting services.

8Having the basic services of telephone and live broadcasting via satellite established a fair degree of “outside” accessibility for essential services. But there are still some people in the North who lack telephony – there is a 98.7 percent penetration of telephony in Canada, and many of those without access live in the North (Information Highway Advisory Council Final Report, 1997: 45). This problem is referred to as a network barrier. Northerners are experiencing a series of other barriers. These include “service barriers,” which occur when a telephone network has already been established but there are only limited services available in the community. “Cost barriers” are evident in that many Northerners cannot afford to purchase individual connection, i.e., long distance charges to a variety of telecom services. There is the skill/knowledge question as well. How many Northern First Peoples are technology-literate enough to want to invest in computer packages and telecommunications services?

9Despite and perhaps partly because of these telecom barriers, First Peoples have focused on broadcasting services and are internationally acknowledged as having the most advanced and fair Fourth World (indigenous peoples) broadcasting system. This distinction is based on the legislated recognition (1991) of their collective communications and cultural rights as Peoples with a special status. Aboriginal-initiated media in Northern Canada (North of the 55th parallel) have a relatively long history compared to Fourth World/indigenous communities elsewhere. The stages through which this broadcasting history have evolved were initiated by First Peoples themselves as they struggled for inclusion in the policy and practice decisions pertaining to broadcast services to their national communities. Partly as a result of pioneering activities by First Peoples to integrate their programming into the Canadian media infrastructure, they are now identified as a mediated model of cultural persistence.


10Radio entered the North in the late 1920s, at the same time that airplanes began to access the region. By the early thirties, trading posts, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police centres, and religious missions were equipped with high frequency radios to maintain contact with their headquarters in the South. Native peoples did not have direct access to these early radio services. In 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Northern Service was established, taking over the infrastructure of short-wave transmitters established by the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of Transport.

11In 1960, the first Inuit-language broadcasts occurred and by 1972, 17 percent of the CBC short-wave service was in Inuktitut. The Canadian federal government’s public subsidization of native-produced media began formally in 1974 with the development of its Native Communications Program (NCP) which granted funding to Native Communications Societies to operate community-based radio stations and newspapers in the North and South. Between 1974 and 1996, 117 First Peoples’ community radio stations have become operational across Canada. With the exception of the Inuit service in the Northwest Territories, whose CBC regional radio programming has always fully represented their concerns, all other Northern regions have both a network of local radio stations and one publicly-subsidized regional service.

12Both regional radio and television broadcasting evolved rapidly in response to the launching of the Anik satellite in 1972. When the North was hooked up to the South through live radio and television services for the first time in 1973, Inuit and First Nations had access to the images, voices, and messages that the United States and metropolitan-based Canadians produced with Southern audiences in mind. The parachuting in of Southern, culturally irrelevant television programming into Northern communities by the CBC Northern Service acted as a catalyst for indigenous constituencies to organize broadcasting in their own languages (or dialects), reflecting their own cultures, as they had already done with radio. After the initial mystique of TV dissipated, native peoples and their Southern supporters began to lobby for their own television programming and network services. They wanted participatory and language rights, as well as decision-making responsibilities about programming and Southern service expansion. By the mid-seventies, First Peoples across the country had secured funding, established 13 regional Native Communications Societies (NCS) responsible for administering their communications activities, and began operating local community television projects.

13Beginning in 1976, and in response to articulate native demands, the federal government made available large grants for native organizations. Funding was to be used for technical experiments and demonstration projects with the Hermes (1976) and Anik B satellites (1978-81). Once these experiments proved successful, the federal government policy-makers were convinced of the economic and political viability of establishing permanent native broadcasting infrastructures throughout the North.

14In 1981, the federal government undertook a one-year consultation and planning process, the outcome of which was the Northern Broadcasting Policy (1983), and an accompanying program vehicle, the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program (NNBAP). These policy and funding decisions were the foundation for the enshrinement of aboriginal control over broadcasting in the 1991 Broadcasting Act.

15The Northern Broadcasting Policy set out the principle of “fair access” by native Northerners to the production and distribution of programming within their territories. It further established the principle of prior consultation with First Peoples before Southern-based decisions were made about Northern telecommunications services. NNBAP, managed by the Department of the Secretary of State (Native Citizens Directorate) was mandated to distribute Cdn$40.3 million over an initial four-year period to the 13 NCSs. The money was to be used for the production of 20 hours of regional native radio and 5 hours of regional aboriginal television per week. Funding has eroded over the years but the Program is still operational.

16As the NNBAP implementation process proceeded, it became apparent that the “fair” distribution of radio and television programming was a key problem. An implicit assumption within the Northern Broadcasting Policy was that this task would be taken care of by either CBC Northern Service or by CANCOM (Canadian Satellite Communications Inc.), the distributor of Northern broadcasting and programs since 1981. In both cases, negotiations between Native Communication Societies and broadcasters had become bogged down over prime time access hours and the preemption of national programming.

17In 1988, the federal government responded to persistent lobbying by the National Aboriginal Communications Society (an interest group representing the NCS constituencies) for secure distribution services by providing a subsidy of Cdn$10 million toward establishing a dedicated Northern satellite transponder (channel). By 1992, Television Northern Canada (TVNC) was on the air.

18Operated and programmed by the 13 aboriginal broadcast groups along with government and education organizations located in the North, TVNC is a pan-Northern satellite service that distributes 100 hours of programming to 94 communities. It is considered to be a primary level service in the North. In 1995, TVNC applied for permission from the CRTC to be placed on the list of eligible channels to be picked up by cable operators in the South. In November 1995, approval was granted, making it possible for TVNC to become available in a variety of Southern Canadian markets, should cable operators decide to make it part of their discretionary packages. It is already accessible on an off-air basis to those owning satellite dishes because its signal is not scrambled. In 1996, however, it digitized its signal so that users had to upgrade their receiver dishes at their own cost.

19In many ways, First Peoples have refashioned television broadcasting. They have indigenized it – transformed it into a tool for inter-community and national development. They have utilized television programming as a vehicle for mediation of their own historically ruptured past, and as a pathway into a more globally-integrated future.


20Initial excitement about the dedicated Northern transponder service declined a year or so after TVNC’s system was in place. This was partly due to the multiplicity of channels which had become available at the time and had effectively fragmented the Northern audience. What was also highly significant was that the symbolic level of representational access, access that mattered, had already been established and embodied in the TVNC. To some extent the federal government felt it had accomplished its duty to support the new delivery service. So, with TVNC well underway, the federal government subsidies began to dry up and bureaucrats began to demand that TVNC diversify its funding sources.

21Thus by the early nineties, TVNC, along with all its individual NCS members, depended on shaky finances. Theirs was not an easy challenge. Services in the North cannot sustain the ongoing high costs of satellite linking through private market support, and new financial pressures sent TVNC scrambling for business opportunities.

22Federal government cutbacks were not TVNC’s only obstacle. As noted above, the dedicated Northern channel went on air just as cable services became available in half of the Northern communities. TVNC broadcasters had to compete like never before, with the disadvantage of having fewer resources to sustain their services. To make matters more complex, TVNC was placed in the sensitive position of having to compete with its own broadcasters for scarce funds from community-based businesses.

23Budgetary constraints have forced Native Communications Societies and TVNC to downsize – to lay people off and be more frugal about resources. Most are managing to keep afloat but are unable to plan a secure future without a viable, lucrative funding source. This need distracts them from their prime objective of public service and takes up time and energy. TVNC has made several attempts to privatize, so has the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation and other NCSs. They have created businesses to sell production services, telecommunications equipment, and broadcasting skills. But Northern markets are less viable than those in the South because of low population density.

24By 1993-4, public access to “ramps” leading to the Information Highway began to seem very attractive as a potential source of income. TVNC attempted to find a way in which it could become involved in configuring and controlling citizen access to appropriate routes to, from, and within the Northern communications environment.


25Meanwhile, in the fall of 1993, the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) Department of Education, Culture and Employment commissioned the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (a prominent Native Communications Society) to conduct seven separate audio teleconferences aimed at clarifying the communications needs of Northerners. During this process 62 people across the Arctic were consulted. The resulting report, entitled Connecting the North: Defining Users’ Needs, confirmed Northern views on “the enormous potential of the emerging technologies to stimulate and promote economic, business and social development.” (IBC, 1995: 5) The report identified two recurrent themes: “the lack of public awareness of communications issues, and the absence of a forum for joint discussion of these issues and formulation of coordinated plans and policies.” (IBC, 1995: 6) On the basis of information derived from this consultation, IBC organized a three-day symposium in November 1994 to address these themes. The electronically-mediated public forum, called Connecting the North, enabled participants to talk about the information highway with all its aspects, issues and opportunities. Using TVNC’s channel, this symposium was the only public debate on the information highway in Canada. Broadcast live, the debate lasted four hours per day over three days. It involved all of the First Peoples’ leadership, thousands of home viewers, and received a great deal of coverage in the Northern press. Participants included stakeholders, users from various key Northern institutions, constituency group representatives, members of the general public. The symposium planners had to deal with a variety of Northern-unique challenges, among which were: a region of 4.3 million sq. km., reaching across 5 time zones; a sparse, widely distributed population of 100,000 Northerners; five stakeholder governments functioning in the consultation area (the federal government, and the governments of the NWT, Yukon, Québec, and Newfoundland (Labrador); 96 culturally and ethnically diverse communities; 17 languages.

26The meeting included input from the Yuendumu Aboriginal community in Australia, and permitted various Canadian sector representatives to focus in on the uses of the Internet for the following services: education, health, social services and justice, public administration, self-government organizations, economic development, infrastructure providers, policy makers and strategists (IBC, 1995: 11). Some of the concerns raised are described in the report as follows:

Public and private sector participants identified a similar range of service related concerns: the need to upgrade the infrastructure to enable access to Southern and global information systems; the need to develop a general awareness of the potential opportunities associated with new technologies; and the need for education and training in the use of new technologies. They also saw the use of new communications technologies as a means of reducing the high human and financial costs associated with the delivery of services and programs in the communities. They recognized the need for the pooling of resources and the need to standardize and rationalize systems and equipment. They saw that the development of an infrastructure to meet the communication needs of the North would reduce a growing information systems disparity between the South and the North. (Nunavut Implementation Commission, 1996: 3)

27Connecting the North was highly acclaimed as a tool for building constituency group consensus around complex and, in some cases, competing sets of project objectives. Although consumers, citizens, producers, and distributors of information and telecom hardware all had a variety of things to say about quality of services, rights, language, and use of the Internet for training, learning, telemedicine, among many other talking points, this paper only looks at issues of access. Because of the isolation of the North from the South, given its geographical vastness and its low level of business-profit potential (with the exception of resource extraction projects), it seemed clear from the meeting discussions that infrastructure would have to be put in place with some ongoing governmental financial assistance, particularly in relation to costs for long-distance services. In the words of the Connecting the North authors:

Canada’s telecommunication infrastructure development is market driven: services tend to develop in and between major centres, where density in population ensures maximum profitability. This principle, however, will not ensure that the residents of remote Northern communities who most need access to information highway services will in fact be able to use them. If infrastructure upgrading occurs in Iqaluit and Yellowknife, but not in Arctic Bay and Jean-Marie River, then the extension of the information highway to the North will favour people in large centres – centres which already have more resources than small communities. Communities both large and small require upgrading of the technology, based not on population, but on equality of access. (IBC, 1995: 25)

28Two insightful comments follow which inform us of the user perspective in relation to the fear of being left out:

  • 2 This statement is excerpted from notes for a report by Lorraine Thomas on Pauktuutit’s Annual Gene (...)

Don’t leave small communities behind! Don’t forget us.2 (Elisabeth Lyall, Talooyoak, June 1997)
There is a danger that such a system may be valued as a luxury service and be costed accordingly, rather than valued as a basic utility service in much the same way we currently value power/telephone services. (Inuvik – Community Discussion Group)

29In 1995, a year after the Connecting the North teleconference, the question of public access resurfaced when the Nunavut Implementation Committee released two studies on Nunavut Telecommunication Needs in which they supported the establishment of Community Teleservice Centres in each community in the North. Known as “telecentres,” “telecottages,” “televillages,” or “tele-offices,” these are “multipurpose centres” that provide telecommunications and computer facilities and support in small villages in rural and remote areas around the globe. They function as information gateways into communities; and out to the world. They have been described “as a ‘virtual community’ composed of people, firms, government agencies, schools, libraries, health care providers and others connected through a common vision or need linked through telecommunications, information resources and shared resources.” (Nunavut Implementation Committee, 1995: 5) “They are a means of overcoming telecommunications service, infrastructure, financial, and skill associated barriers. Regardless of their size or the services that they provide, their primary purpose is the preservation of the quality of life through the resolution of economic problems associated with distance and remoteness.” (Nunavut Implementation Committee, 1996: 1) The Telecentre is a model of public access that will likely be utilized extensively across the North, but it will require some public subsidy because of the high costs of telephone long-distance services for the local service providers, especially in communities where the population of users is too small to meet the servers’ investment and operational costs, even before a profit is possible.

30Connecting the North facilitated the formal beginnings of a Pan-Northern telecom dialogue. However, the North is divided into five distinct territorial jurisdictions: the Yukon, the NWT, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Labrador, over and above the northern parts of the individual provinces. Quite predictably, many regional demonstration projects and debates have been undertaken subsequently, and numerous constituency groups and consortia are in the process of putting together services for their specific regions. It is a time of technological pioneering in the North and competition over control of the information highway infrastructure construction is fierce. Over and above support for individual efforts on small projects, each of the regional governments is evaluating what it considers to be the best technical map for future developments. Important decisions are being made and the stakes are high for Northerners.

31The last section of this paper focuses on two initiatives – the Nunavik demonstration project which took place between 1996 and 1997 and the Pauktuutit’s (Inuit Women’s Association) efforts to demand community access and control over the informatization process of the North. This will be followed by an overview of the decision-making process currently underway in the NWT concerning the information highway infrastructure. Due to the rapid daily changes in the decision-making processes, and for heuristic reasons, our discussion stops at the beginning of October 1997.


32In the fall of 1996, went on-line. Designed as a pilot project for Northern Québec by the Inuit Native Communications Society (Taqramiut Nipingat Incorporated, or TNI), it used the idea of the Telecentre as its central organizing principle and set up CTSCs in three of the largest communities of Nunavik – Kuujuuaq, Salluit, and Puvirnituq, each having a population of roughly 1,000. TNI trained a resource person in each community to coordinate the public access venue and all seemed to be going well until the project lost momentum in August 1997 and was halted before its three-year term expired. With approximately 100 users in all three communities, and at a total monthly cost of Cdn$2,500 per community for the bandwidth access, TNI had gone into arrears with Bell Canada after 10 months. Why did the TNI project fail? There are a number of likely answers, including the following: the population was too small to support the payment structures – there is a need for cheaper bandwidth in the North; TNI might not have had the organizational and financial infrastructure to take on a project of this magnitude and sustain it over the three-year period; and private user support for the demonstration project was not wide enough, with only about a dozen paying customers per community participating in the project at a fee of Cdn$50 per month. Beyond institutional users, there is not yet that critical mass of people in Northern Québec Inuit communities who either own personal computers or desire access to Information Highway services on a public computer located at a Telecentre. To date, no evaluation of the pilots has been published or made available to the public and TNI’s demonstration project has been closed down.


33The Inuit Women’s Association is a model of action-oriented deliberative processes that ought to be taking place in the North in relation to citizen access extension. In 1996, the Inuit Women’s Association, Pauktuutit, seriously contemplated the assets and liabilities of becoming involved in the information highway and, in particular, the one-stop kiosk idea of the Telecentre. In a series of meetings with feminist communications consultants, representatives from Pauktuutit articulated the point that Inuit women needed to be alerted to the complexities of access and participation if they were to get involved with the information highway. They discussed the importance of, and the values inherent in, the use of mediated communications and agreed to spend some time talking about telecommunications at their next Annual General Meeting in June 1997. The Pauktuutit women commented that they were positively disposed towards computers and other forms of media provided that their specified goals were met. But they insisted that their concerns be embedded in the debate about the Northern information highway right from the start. For example, if communities are to go ahead with building Telecentres, Pauktuutit women want to be sure that an appropriate building is used, one which is central, safe, and has a good atmosphere. They want to be involved in choosing that site as well. Of utmost concern is community-by-community control over access. This is a political issue to members of Pauktuutit – it is going public, being heard, and being counted in a technologically-driven debate which will, from now on, have multiple consequences on their lives.

34Pauktuutit women are very aware that in joining the information highway’s virtual communities, First Peoples will have to adapt to existing practices that have emerged from another culture. They may be able to change the language symbols and, in minor ways, the cultural images of life on the Net by additive means, but to a large extent, the infrastructural design is impregnated with the political roots, ideological constructs, and cultural biases of the designers of the technological apparatus and software applications.

35To what extent will First Peoples be able to “indigenize” the Internet in the North? The answer to this question will depend on the degree to which they are able to use the net for purposes of cultural persistence, to be present on the net visually, socially, technically, locally, discursively – to make their presence felt. Women from the Pauktuutit organization are showing us a way of doing things with talk, contemplative practices, and action-oriented strategies. They are becoming involved in the community development process, focusing on the implications of the information infrastructure in their towns, and considering all of this in relation to their actual communications and media needs. In a culturally-thoughtful manner, they are pacing the changes about to enter their life-worlds. We, in Canada’s South and elsewhere, could learn something important from their methods and values.

36But, theirs is not the only Northern strategy. While Pauktuutit constituency members are thoughtfully configuring their position in the process of global integration, Northern entrepreneurs are in a rush to install the infrastructure and get on with building a clientele and making a profit.


37In recent years the government has actively withdrawn from the mixed-model tradition. This can be seen in an amendment to the Telecommunications Act in 1994, shifting the initiative in communications from public service to market forces, and opening the doors to deregulation and privatization. It can also be seen in the Information Highway Advisory Council’s report – in its general recommendation that the private sector should create and manage the infrastructure and operating systems of the information society free from public-interest interference. The retreat from the mixed model can also be seen in the cutbacks to cultural funding that we have witnessed since 1984, resulting in the loss of our collective memory – the “shadows on the wall” that anchor us to our particular place and time (Menzies, 1997: 3).

38Since 1994, and in the context of the NAFTA agreement, GATT, and the World Trade Organization critiques of “protectionism,” several complex issues have evolved and decisions about the Northern information highway configuration have been taken. It is hard to describe the events in a linear fashion because so many of them were entangled in the politics, practices, and interest-laden contexts of negotiation. What follows is one version of how things are unfolding.

39In May 1996, the NWT government put out a call for proposals to establish a digital communications network throughout its region with the stipulation “that the winning consortium would preferably be northern-based and aboriginal-owned, committed to establishing nodes in the smallest communities, and prepared to finish the job by April 1999. It would have to guarantee initial access to government, education, and medical facilities in each community over a bandwidth of 384 Kbps.” (Teitlebaum, 1997: 282) The NWT government’s approach was this: it would purchase bandwidth to guarantee essential services in each community and then resell a portion of it (at a cheaper rate) to potential local consumers who could use it at their discretion. In other words, the NWT government would be subsidizing local users by enabling their purchase of cheaper access than is available elsewhere.

40In response to the request for proposals, TVNC joined forces with CANCOM (the Canadian Satellite Telecommunications delivery system) to form a consortium and bid for the digital highway construction contract. In the meantime, Northwestel, the monopolistic telephone service company located in the Yukon, began a collaboration with Arctic Co-operatives Limited (the chief Northern cable operator) to compete with TVNC and CANCOM. The two groups planned highway infrastructures, each utilizing and expanding upon their existing Northern service delivery resources. TVNC and CANCOM intended to piggyback on their satellite receiver dishes, and Northwestel/Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. planned to amplify existing telephone and cable lines. As already noted, TVNC/CANCOM went digital in April 1996, and this meant that users required a new satellite receiver dish to downlink their digitally compressed video signals. With the exception of Iqaluit, where TVNC/CANCOM maintains its uplink (two-way [receiving/transmitting]) satellite dish, other communities’ new dishes are only set to receive and not to transmit signals. Given the limitations of TVNC/CANCOM’s existing technology, if it were to become the developer and guardian of information highway infrastructure, it would have to invest a large amount of new money into the expansion of bandwidth and into the additional purchase of two-way dishes, at a prohibitive cost. In other words, TVNC would not have been able to tap into existing satellite resources in each community without fairly large financial investment. It was prepared to do so, however. On the other hand, Northwestel’s costs would be far less because their existing infrastructure is easier to modify. Furthermore, if the GNWT had any inclination toward public service, the fact that Northwestel joined forces with Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. (a community-accountable outfit) seemed to accommodate this principle.

41In summary, the two consortia competed for the contract within a framework of private entrepreneurial principles. Pressure to do so in order to be considered credible and serious business players was “in the air,” and was evident in the corporatized discourses circulating within the various levels of government involved in the decision-making process.

42But TVNC is not a private business and is accountable to its Board of Directors and its constituency members in ways that private enterprises are not. In many ways, the TVNC/CANCOM joint model reflected the Canadian broadcasting system in that it was made up of weaker public and stronger private elements. The telephone and co-op contenders leaned more toward the private-based telecom model of private enterprise, but one with a slight socially-accountable twist. At least from a discursive perspective, their model included an element of a co-operative public consciousness although, in effect, it was grafted onto their proposal in a less significant way than if it had been a public-service prototype.

  • 3 This is not the only project infrastructure in the planning stage. Seven demonstration projects ha (...)

43Partly because of politics, social relationships, cost, and the possibility of schmoozing in Yellowknife where the action was, Northwestel/Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. and NASCO (a third collaborator), won the tender for establishing information highway services in the North and is currently in the process of building them under a new company name, ARDICOM.3

On April 24, 1997, the government of the Northwest Territories agreed to a Cdn$25 million (US$18 million) deal with a northern-based, aboriginally owned company called Ardicom, which runs off Canada’s satellite system. Ardicom’s task, now, is to establish this network, via satellite and terrestrial links, with nodes in all 58 of the Canadian Arctic’s population centres. Installation of the new digital network began last fall, and Ardicom plans to connect the first 20 of the region’s communities to its network by year’s end. (Teitlebaum, 1997: 278)


44The fact that the NWT awarded the contract to ARDICOM and not a First Peoples’ public service organization is not a decision to be taken lightly. It is very revealing – as a sign that established public service models in the North, such as that of TVNC and of the NCSs, may no longer be perceived as viable economic options. The decision is a clear indication of the NWT’s current position within the private/public service debate, as well as within that regarding ownership, control, and the need for public subsidy. Somewhat in the tradition of the “typical Canadian compromise,” it is the NWT government’s acknowledgment that it is, on the one hand, open to media privatization. On the other, it recognizes the need for minor public subsidies due to high telecom costs. In other words, it suggests the possibility of a parallel position developing in relation to broadcasting as well.

45Will this trend toward privatization be restricted to information highway decisions in the future, or might it also apply to the broadcasting infrastructure of Native Communications Societies and Television Northern Canada? This is a question well worth asking given a recent proposal to the Department of Canadian Heritage. Submitted by two former Inuit Broadcasting producers, Zacharias Kunuk and Paul Apak, both located in Igloolik and both involved in Isuma Productions Inc., the proposal argued that the headquarters and control mechanisms of Inuit Broadcasting Corporation and TVNC should be relocated to Iqaluit from Ottawa and privatized. In moving the organizational infrastructure and control to the North and to independent contractees, they hope to develop a strong independent First Peoples production and distribution industry in the North. To date, there has been no official government response to their proposal.

46The consequences of current technical and economic decisions are not felt solely in the technical and economic realms. As evident from their past media history, Northerners are not passive recipients of either media services or telecom bandwidth. Decisions about infrastructural development, and equitable, affordable access are deeply political, though they are often masked as economic and technical considerations. The NWT has demonstrated where it stands vis-à-vis the development of information infrastructures in the North. The federal, Yukon, Nunavut and provincial governments now have two emergent options in relation to Northern and remote communities, i.e., the mid-North, the Northern parts of the provinces, the Native Communications Societies and other Northern resources which they have, in the past two decades, publicly subsidized: either let market forces play themselves out without direct intervention, or show the good will necessary to recognize the universal access rights of the North as an economically-disadvantaged region with a small population by providing long-term, secure public service subsidies.

47In the preliminary report of the Information Highway Advisory Council (1996), the national access strategy is clarified. Its guiding principles are: “universal, affordable and equitable access; consumer choice and diversity of information; competency and citizens’ participation; open and interactive networks.” (IHAC, 1997: 42) In its Final Report, IHAC restates these principles and adds:

Consistent with the Council’s philosophy, the government recognized that market forces would play an important role in putting these principles [of national, universal, affordable and equitable access] into action. However, the government also indicated: “Where market forces fail to provide this level of access, the government is prepared to step in to ensure affordable access to essential Information Highway services for all Canadians, regardless of their income or geographic location.” (IHAC, 1997: 42)

48Given the recent CANARIE (Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Industry and Education) funding of several Northern and/or native-based telecom demonstration projects, perhaps enough data will be generated over the next few years to pressure the federal and/or provincial/territorial/Nunavut governments involved to make evidence-based decisions in favour of public subsidization of the Northern Information Highway infrastructure.

49The particularities of the Northern mediascape provide a benchmark of what basic service and special needs are in a region that visibly marks itself as an exemplary case for public subsidization and universal access. How the Northern access options are played out in the next few years will tell us a lot about the state of democratic communication rights for all Canadian citizens at the end of the twentieth century. Let us be watchful of the process.


1 Nunavut and Nunavik are vast areas. Nunavut consists of the portion of the former Northwest Territories that is occupied by the Inuit of Northern Canada. Together, Nunavut and Nunavik (the Inuit territory in Northern Québec), constitute approximately 1/3 of Canada and have a very small population. There are 96 communities in the NWT/Nunavut with a total population of 57,649; 17,500 are Inuit, according to the 1991 census. In Nunavik, there is a population of 7,500 Inuit. In 1999, both Nunavut and Nunavik will begin to exercise their right of self-government.

2 This statement is excerpted from notes for a report by Lorraine Thomas on Pauktuutit’s Annual General Meeting in 1997. Not all communities have been forgotten, nor have all been left behind. There are several small communities on-line with large enough populations of users that the server is able to maintain its bottom line. These are Rankin Inlet, Cambridge Bay, Iqaluit, Yellowknife, and Whitehorse. Some schools are also hooked into SchoolNet; nursing stations and medical services have the finances to dial-up to servers down South; and the federal government’s Community Access Program has assisted in getting two NWT and five Yukon communities launched onto the Information Highway.

3 This is not the only project infrastructure in the planning stage. Seven demonstration projects have been funded in the North by CANARIE (Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Industry and Education) for a total of Cdn$1.25 million, beginning in the fall of 1997. Things are moving quickly in the North.


Associate Professor at the Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University, Montréal, Canada.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1999

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