The authors examine the relationship between connectivity, communications infrastructure, and democratic expression and civic participation. In an analysis of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry and the 2012-2013 Nunavut May River iron ore hearings, the Dalseg and Abele contend that communications technology is essential, but only functional given certain social and organizational conditions. These conditions include: local institutions for citizen mobilization, Indigenous language use, funding, and receptive public institutions.
The authors define a Northern problem they call “knowledge isolation,” which captures the difficulties of sharing essential information across Northern communities quickly, along with a dearth of opportunities to discuss collective decisions. They then turn to a history of northern communications technology, beginning after the Second World War. The introduction of radio in the 1950s through 1970s played an important role in Indigenous communities’ ability to mobilize politically and share knowledge. Television also expanded quickly after the Anik satellite permitted broadcasts to and from the north in 1973.
The Berger Inquiry was broadcast both on television and over CBC radio, along with topical bi-weekly documentaries on Our Native Land. Two Indigenous language broadcasters worked with CBC Northern Service and filed daily reports in seven Indigenous languages: Chipewyan, Dogrib, North and South Slavey, Gwich’in, and Inuktitut. Louie Blondin translated North and South Slavey. These translations were essential to the inquiry’s success, as they ensured that all communities understood the issues at play, and could hear their own perspectives echoed in other places.
In a country as large as Canada, connectivity—whether by road, rail, radio, or the Internet—plays an important role in economic growth, political and social development, and civic engagement. The importance of communications infrastructure especially is evident in the northern two-thirds of Canada, where radio, television, and the Internet have been instruments of democratic expression and civic participation. As pressures for resource extraction mount, northern communities must respond to economic, social, and political challenges from a position of geographical and, more significantly, “knowledge” isolation. Northern community residents need effective, community-led channels of communication. Addressing these needs will require both social and technological innovation—which can, fortunately, proceed from an existing base of experience and community expertise. In this article, we analyze two moments in northern public policy discourse in which new communications media played a pivotal role in advancing democratic dialogue in northern Canada: the 1975-7 Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry, and the 2012-3 hearings into the Mary River iron ore project in Nunavut. Our goal is to advance understanding of the purposeful use of communications infrastructure to support the development of local understanding, citizen engagement, and opportunities for effective community participation in development decisions. We find that technological capacity is foundational, but effective only under specific social and organizational conditions, which include the existence of appropriate institutions at the local level for citizen mobilization and response, dominance of Indigenous language use by northern citizens, appropriate levels of funding, and receptive public institutions to and through which northern citizens can speak.
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Kennedy Dalseg, Sheena, and Frances Abele. “Language, Distance, Democracy: Development Decision Making and Northern communications.” The Northern Review 41 (2015): 207-240.