Enlarge /. The city of Nain.
Dennis Minty / Adventure Canada
Moravian missionaries came to Canada in the 18th century and forever changed the future of the country's Inuit population. From the 19th century, Inuit children were taken out of their families and forced to attend residential schools (boarding schools) where they were not allowed to speak their own language. In the 1950s, thousands of Inuit in Nunatsiavut (the easternmost of Canada's four Inuit regions) were violently removed from their country and stripped of their mother tongue and customs. As a result, a generation of students who had lost their culture gave birth to children who are now looking for new ways to win them back.
Restoring this culture is a challenge as many Inuit currently live in remote communities lacking roads and transportation infrastructure, so they are isolated from each other. But technology has started to help them connect with other Inuit across the country, preserve traditional cultural practices, and create a space where young people can learn about and participate in their heritage.
Of the 65,000 Inuit in Canada, approximately 7,200 are Labrador Inuit. About a third of this Labrador Inuit lives in Nunatsiavut, where five large Inuit communities are scattered along the coast of the Newfoundland province of Labrador. None of the communities are connected to each other or to other places by road, and they can only be reached by plane or boat. With around 1,200 inhabitants, Nain is the largest and northernmost Inuit community.
However, Nain has a decisive advantage when integrating into the wider Inuit world: it is the only one of these communities with mobile phone services. Until a year ago, surfing the Internet and using social media was largely limited to the house in Nain. In July 2019, however, the mobile phone service arrived in Nain.
Some Inuit parents have the same concerns as parents in more connected regions, e.g. B. whether their children spend too much time online. But some of these children use technology to connect with Inuit communities – and their traditions – that they might otherwise never experience.
Life before cell coverage
I arrived in Nain on an Adventure Canada expedition ship in September 2019, just two months after the cellular service arrived in the city. We were the first (and only) expedition ship to visit the city of 1,100 people all year round. After seven days of sailing and hiking without internet access, the city's new mobile service was a very welcome surprise for the mostly Canadian and American passengers on board. Many of these passengers immediately signed up on social media.
Although cellular coverage was unavailable until recently, some residents of Nain had cell phones that they used to connect to the Internet through home WiFi connections. Until 2019, however, they had no reason to take their phones outside the home unless they were traveling to another part of Canada that was on duty there.
Many residents – especially the younger ones – had learned to get around restricted access. Megan Dicker, a 20-year-old geography student from Nain, said of the new cellular plans: "It wasn't a big change from before. We knew all of the houses with Wi-Fi, so we just stopped to connect on the way there wherever we wanted to go. "Dicker firmly believes the new mobile phone service is a good thing, but noted that it needs to be used" in moderation ".
Enlarge /. Megan Dicker shows off her traditional tattoos.
According to the Nunatsiavut government director of communications, Bert Pomeroy, Inuit communities have long struggled not only with access to cellular services, but also with reasonable Internet speeds. As recently as two years ago, the bandwidth in Nain was so limited that even local government employees struggled to share files with each other. "Someone trying to send timesheets or a PDF to the HR department may have to wait a few minutes for it to finish," said Pomeroy. "It got worse in the afternoon when the kids left school and on Xbox or Netflix."
When the cell phone service arrived, Nain's new cell phone plans contained data usage restrictions. Therefore, the community had to be informed about how these plans work. Up until that point, the only experience most people had with the Internet was the unlimited access they had over a home Wi-Fi connection.
The local government of Nunatsiavut and a number of individual citizens have made it their mission to help their neighbors avoid the overcharging of the community. Local residents who understood the data plans posted statements on their personal Facebook feeds to inform their friends and family. In other words, they used technology to educate others about technology.
The social media debate
The expanded access offers some obvious practical advantages. The Nunitsiavut regional government in Nain, led by the Inuit, has also opted for social media and exchanged articles about upcoming cultural commemorations and visits to the doctor. Opticians and dentists only visit the community every one to two months. It is therefore important that the residents know when they can make appointments. When COVID-19 reached Canada, the Nunatsiavut government and local politicians used social media to share information about social distancing.
Although Facebook and social media were already available on desktop computers, locals in Nain have noticed a significant increase in usage since the arrival of mobile phone service. Some parents and elders are upset that their children and grandchildren flog their phones at community events. They complain that some teenagers prefer to stare at their screens instead of engaging with their neighbors and taking part in celebrations and sporting events.
At least half a dozen community members I spoke to expressed concern about the increasing amount of time they and their neighbors are spending online now. One woman said she enjoyed browsing her family and friends' Facebook pages for about 15 minutes. After that, she feels depressed. Several residents also expressed concern about "excessive sharing" and "inappropriate" Facebook posts – a symptom of social media culture that almost everyone with a Facebook account saw firsthand.
Enlarge /. Wayne Broomfield fears that a focus on devices will reduce the younger generation's connection to the country.
Young people see the experience a little differently. You can find Inuit colleagues in other communities through mutual friends on social media. Young people search their friends Instagram followers and Facebook friends find other Inuit teenagers with similar interests. They follow each other online and then share cultural information with each other, sometimes through live streaming from community gatherings.
Wayne Broomfield, the deputy expedition leader on the Adventure Canada tours through Nunatsiavut, accepted the good aspects of social media, but expressed another concern. "Many young Inuit no longer connect to the country because they can make it much easier online," he said. "It's good that they learn more about their culture on social media, but you can't make the same connection online that you can if you actually go out to the country."