Language, distance, democracy: development decision making and northern communications.

Author:Dolseg, Sheena Kennedy
Position::Report
 
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Abstract: 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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Many of Canada's most cherished founding myths emphasize the role of the state in developing the infrastructure necessary to nation-building. Typically these myths ignore or underplay the question of the ownership of the land upon which the new country was being built. The Trans-Canada railroad system drew the colony of British Columbia into the federation while it enabled the appropriation of western Indigenous peoples' land and the destruction of their livelihoods. Later transportation projects, such as the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, had or threatened similar impacts. On the other hand, if railways and pipeline corridors have advanced or threatened the separation of Indigenous peoples from their lands, other forms of infrastructure--particularly communications infrastructure--have on occasion had countervailing effects. Activists, reformers, and political leaders from diverse political persuasions have seen the expansion of communications infrastructure and funding of public broadcasting as integral to the development and maintenance of a healthy democracy. In particular, radio, television, and the Internet have been important instruments of democratic expression and civic engagement.

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 communication and transportation facilities is especially evident in the northern two-thirds of Canada. The dispersion of northern communities, the high cost of travel, the relative weakness of communications infrastructure, and long distances between northern communities and traditional sites of scientific knowledge production (universities and governments), create multifaceted challenges for northern communities wanting to engage in informed public-policy decision making. 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 to be able to share their knowledge with each other; they need access to high quality, pertinent information about the choices facing them; and they require adequate opportunities to discuss those choices among themselves and with interlocutors for the large public and private interests engaged in northern economic development. In short, they 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 hope to contribute to the work of building effective means for northern public-policy decision making by analyzing two moments in northern public policy discourse in which new communications media, appropriately organized, played a pivotal role in advancing democratic dialogue in northern Canada. Our cases are the 1975-7 Inquiry into the Construction of a Pipeline in the Mackenzie Valley (Berger Inquiry), and the 2012-3 Nunavut Impact Review Board hearings into the Mary River iron ore project. Separated by nearly forty years, these public processes bracket a period of rapid technological change, and equally rapid change in the legal and political circumstances of northern Indigenous people. As we shall show, each case has its origins in 1960s public investment in mineral exploration and the public promotion of private development "in the national interest"--unalloyed by any recognition of Indigenous land rights or northerners' right to democratic participation in decision making. (1) After the 1970s, this approach to northern development ceased to be viable, as northern Indigenous people organized to represent their own interests and worked with their northern co-residents to begin to shape northern development decisions.

Among the important changes in the period between the 1970s and the present has been the advancement of northern communities' technical capacities for communication with each other. The introduction of community radio, satellite communication, and, finally, the Internet have reduced the effects of distance on democratic communication about matters of public policy. Concurrently, norms of citizen engagement in regulatory processes, and legal requirements to consult and accommodate Indigenous peoples about development in their traditional territories, have become entrenched. (2) These complementary contextual changes have brought the North to the threshold of new opportunities for democratic development decision making--and they have created a need for technological and social innovation. New digital media enable and encourage oral Indigenous language communication, and, importantly, promise to make the contemporary legal requirement for effective consultation real. (3)

After providing a brief sketch of the history of northern telecommunications, we will describe and compare the two instances of their use in the service of enhanced democratic public deliberation about development in the North. In examining one aspect of the Berger Inquiry experience, and the more recent case of the Mary River development, 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. These 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.

Extension of Northern Communications Technology and Pressures for Democracy

As is well known, the decades after the Second World War brought rapid and profound social change to the part of northern Canada that is now Nunavut and the Northwest Territories (NWT), including the centralization of the population in communities, the introduction of compulsory schooling, the extension of health care services, and the introduction of various new governing arrangements. At the same time, northern communications and transportation infrastructure was expanded. (4) The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Northern [Radio] Service began broadcasting in the larger centres (5) of northern Canada in the late 1950s, and by 1960 it carried limited northern Indigenous language programming. In 1973, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) mandated the creation of the Native Communications Program, which enabled communities to establish their own local radio stations, dividing airtime with the already established CBC. The program also began to fund regional native communications societies in all parts of Canada, including the Native Communications Society of the Northwest Territories. (6)

Broadcast radio arrived just as Indigenous people began to mobilize politically in the mid-1960s, with far-reaching impacts. (7) Indigenous activists immediately recognized the value of radio for sharing knowledge and building community engagement. In his account of the land claims negotiation process, John Amagoalik writes that the "community radio was an important instrument to reach our people." (8) In 1971, the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories (IBNWT)--which saw "discussion and information as the first step for solving the social, economic, cultural and health problems [affecting] our people in the Territories" (9)--proposed to establish a communications unit that would: produce media "designed for native people by native people"; provide a platform for people to express their views on issues of importance to them to "help native persons know and understand their own problems"; and "improve the self image...

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