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Airungaaipa! (Welcome to Nunavut Online)
Ethan Zuckerman, 3 Nov 04

In 1999, Nunavut broke away from the Northwest Territories to become Canada's newest territory. The resulting territory is the size of Western Europe, and has 25 settlements, a population of under 30,000 and no roads. Greenland, the world's most sparsely populated nation, has twice the population density of Nunavut.

How does the world's most sparsely populated territory stay in touch? The Internet, of course! When the new territory was incorporated, a top priority was satellite-based Internet service for the capital, Iqaluit, and two regional centers. By 2002, commercial service providers were setting up wireless ISPs, providing high speed access to population centers.

A special challenge for Nunavut in embracing the Internet has been preserving Inuktitut, the language spoken by the Inuit. Inuktitut wasn't a written language until 1876, when Inuit adopted the syllabic writing system introduced to the Objiwe and Cree by Methodist missionary James Evans. (Evans "invented" the writing system so he could translate the New Testament into Ojibwe and Cree. Depending on which origin story one believes, he "borrowed" the script either from Pittman shorthand, or from the Cree themselves! - A Brief History of Inuktitut Writing Culture provides an excellent background on the 150-year history of written Inuktitut.)

Determined that Inuktitut would survive into the information age, Inuit worked with IBM in the 1976 to design a syllabic Inuktitut typeface "typeball" for the IBM Selectric typewriter. As personal computers replaced typewriters, syllabic Inuktitut began to lose out to romanized Inuktitut, as computer users faced problems with incompatible fonts.

But with the rise of Unicode, syllabic Inuktitut is making a comeback, in no small part due to the efforts of groups like The Pirurvik Centre, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Inuit language and culture. A new collaboration between Pirurvik and Web Community Resource Networks, called Attavik (short for "Inuktitut Qarasaujalirinirmut Attavik", or "setting a foundation for Inuktitut computing") is building Inuktitut websites for the Legislative Assembly, the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation and non-governmental organizations like Volunteer Nunavut.

The BBC reports that Attavik has developed a content management system for Inuktitut which will be useful not only for Nunavut and Greenland, but for other syllabic languages like Ojibwe, Cree, and perhaps even Korean. And Pirurvik is working with Microsoft to develop Inuktitut localizations of Microsoft Office. (It's unclear whether an Inuktitut OpenOffice will follow...)

Interested in learning some Inuktitut online? Check out asuilaak - the Inuktitut Living Dictionary. I just discovered that there are at least nine different ways to say "It is cold", which should come in handy if I'm ever lucky enough to visit Nunavut.

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Comments

Kudos, Ethan (you beat me to this one!) - and a great overview of an arcane, often baffling script

For anyone interested in hearing Inuktitut spoken, I recommend the stunning 3-hour epic Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), which is a genius film by any standard.


Posted by: Dawn Danby on 3 Nov 04

It's interesting to see that videoconferencing is becoming a key technology for Canada's North. There are already a number of pilot projects, like the Nunavut Telehealth Project.

Paradoxically, enabling more interaction with the rest of the world may strengthen Inuit culture - not least by making Nunavut a less isolated place to live, work, and study.


Posted by: Hassan on 4 Nov 04

Some rambling thoughts that I can't think of a way to eloquently begin:

This summer I went by ferry up Nunatsiavut, the Inuit territory on the Eastern coast of Labrador. (Inuvialuit in the Northwest territories and Nunavik in Quebec are, along with Nunavut, the others). I was visiting Nain -- the northernmost Inuit community, and in fact the northernmost community one can reach by commercial transportation in North America. My best friend was born in Nain, and had returned there a couple years ago to help his people.

Nain, along with the other Inuit communities that stretch up the coast from the relative metropolis of Happy Valley / Goose Bay -- population 7,965 -- is accessible by ferry in the summer, snowmobile in the winter, and air throughout the year. People hunt caribou and seal, and fish for char and salmon, to put food on the table. There are no roads. There are, however, television and the internet, and the society presents a complex picture of technology's . . . um . . . complexity.

It is wonderful to hear of the ways that communication techs help Inuit stay in touch, and also help preserve their culture. Wired ran a nice piece on this a while back. But, as in the Wired piece, there tends to be a bit of techno-fetishism surrounding the discussion. The Inuits' dire situation is glossed over or ignored altogether -- and this dire situation is exacerbated by modern communications technologies.

The Inuit were, like every other North American aboriginal group, treated terribly for decades by government and industry. They were forced to abandon their traditional nomadic ways -- and here I don't want to sound like I'm romanticizing anything; I'm just saying -- and pushed into miserable settlements. Their children were taken away and sent to missionary schools where they were forbidden from speaking their language. Abuse was also rampant.

There were never very many Inuit to begin with, and the effects of this dislocation took hold with brutal quickness. The soul of a people -- the things they *did*, on a day to day basis, the simple routines and activities that made up their lives -- was ripped out, and nothing was there to take its place.

The Canadian government has, it seems, tried hard in recent years to redress these wrongs, but the cycles of alcoholism, dependence, despair and alienation resist easy solutions. And it is almost impossible to overstate these problems. In Nain last year, seventeen people -- almost all of them teenagers -- killed themselves. Nain has a population of two thousand. Such suicide rates are not unusual in Inuit communities.

More than half the population is also young -- twenty and below, or -- and it is among them that (to me, an outsider) the alienation seemed strongest. Most of them are saturated in commercial images of the outside world -- images of a reality they cannot hope to attain, yet are told is the only reality worth having. The sould of their people, as I said, was ripped out, but I wasn't altogether accurate that there was nothing to take its place. There were commercial messages -- messages, in the end, of dissatisfaction with their belongings, their old practices, their possibilities.

Which is not to say that they ought to be happy with poverty, alcoholism and despair -- but the sort of stable, prosperous society that the Inuit might someday build is not at all the society sold to them for more than half of their waking hours, every single day. The effects of this message are palpable. For all that digital technologies have helped save the culture, they are corroding it in the minds of the young at a far greater rate.

But though I think things might have been better had television never arrived in Nunatsiavut, the same problems would certainly still be there. And there's no way to cut it off now. And the solution is . . . far beyond my own narrow perspective.


Posted by: Brandon Keim on 4 Nov 04

I actually have a question,
In a perfect world would could have the Canadian government done differently in order to preserve the culure of the Inuit, when they went north?
If someone could e-mail me some information it would be appreciated. rwallack@hotmail.com


Posted by: Ryan on 13 Nov 04

Can you expand more about the settlements in Nunavut?


Posted by: Eul Basa on 14 Nov 04



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