Chantal Jung Examines the Digital Divide Facing Inuit ArtistsNews title
Inuit Art Foundation | April 04, 2023
Apr 04, 2023
by Chantal Jung
It’s Saturday, and I am finally able to catch up with my brother without the pesky time difference getting in the way. Typically, we connect through Facebook messenger, but today my niece wants to video chat. As we attempt to video call one another, once again, the video quality is so blurry that we become frustrated and switch back to chatting only. It’s a familiar feeling; I often rely on pictures my family shares with me or posts on Facebook to maintain a sense of connection despite the distance between us, as my brother lives in Nain, Nunatsiavut, NL, and I live in San Jose, California.
I’ve been thinking a lot about internet access and how it affects my daily life, especially since I mostly work from home and much of my artwork lately has been digital. When I first moved to San Jose, it was surprising to discover that low-income and rural areas in the Central Valley of California, which is in close proximity to the tech industry, still struggle with reliable access to high-speed internet. Shockingly, nearly a quarter of Fresno County, which is only 300 km away from Silicon Valley, is without high-speed internet access.  This lack of access creates significant obstacles for remote learning, telecommuting and economic opportunities for the communities in Central Valley. Moreover, it serves as a reminder of the situation in my own community in Nunatsiavut and the Arctic region in general.
Indigenous communities in Canada unfortunately experience a digital divide, disproportionately lacking affordable and reliable broadband internet services as well as applications and content designed to promote their self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration. Broadband internet access is crucial for Indigenous communities, as it supports self-determination by enabling them to improve access to services and programs, support economic participation and contribute to the revitalization of Indigenous languages and cultures.  For Inuit artists, strong internet access is crucial for promoting their own artwork, collaborating with other artists and accessing tools that could benefit their art practice.
Many communities in northern Canada and the Arctic still rely on satellite technology for internet access, which may offer slower speeds. According to the 2017 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, Inuit in Inuit Nunangat had a lower rate of internet access at home (68%) compared to Inuit living outside the region (91%). Many parts of the Arctic struggle with inadequate download speeds, often achieving only 5 Mbps.  For comparison, streaming a high-resolution 4K video requires a minimum of 20 Mbps, and uploading a 1080p video at 30 frames per second requires upload speeds between 3.8 Mbps and 7.4 Mbps. This lack of access exacerbates existing disparities in the digital and cultural spheres.
Eldred Allen, a photographer from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, NL, who uses handheld cameras, drones, and 3D modelling, shared in a 2019 interview how difficult it is to put his work online. “I had a very small clip, about 57 MB in size, which could take me two hours or more to upload. Most times it’s longer, a lot of times it’ll fail and you have got to try to restart,” he said. “When I do pulse processing, a lot of times I’ll have to downgrade the quality so that uploads are faster.” 
Laisa Audlaluk-Watsko, another photographer from Aujuittuq (Grise Fjord), NU, described similar circumstances: “It’s been a challenge trying to upload the quality [photos]…I learned quickly that the broadband was always limiting [me],” she said. “If I go down south to Ottawa, that’s the time to upload, because it’s high speed there. Otherwise, I put the high-quality [photos] on my memory cards.” 
Unfortunately, bringing broadband internet to remote communities is a large infrastructure project, and because there aren’t many users, it can be difficult to secure the necessary funding. Private and commercial financiers are often hesitant to invest in such projects, since they don’t generate enough revenue to justify the investment. As a result, many telecommunications networks in the Arctic are led by the public sector, which can further contribute to the digital divide in the region.
Numerous organizations have made efforts to address northern artists’ internet needs. The IsumaTV network—a collaborative multimedia platform and social network designed to connect and empower independent Indigenous filmmakers, media artists and local communities around the world—provides a platform to share and distribute Indigenous media content, as well as to participate in live events and workshops. Their IsumaTV Mediaplayer is a caching server that helps remote areas bypass slow internet speeds, data transfer limits and high costs associated with sharing media.  It allows users to upload and share media through their website at high speed and full quality, regardless of their internet connection.
The Inuit Art Foundation has also made efforts to accommodate readers who don’t have access to broadband internet. Their website has a low-bandwidth version, which was built into the site to accommodate this exact need. It can be accessed from the main menus, and it strips out images to create a text-only version. Their new artist portal was also built with low-bandwidth users in mind. 
Another effort came from Pinnguaq and Nordicity, who in 2021 jointly launched an initiative called Nunavut Media Arts Center (NMAC), which aims to empower and support Inuit artists in the field of media arts. NMAC uses a co-design approach, where they work with the community to create a space that is inclusive and responsive to the needs of Inuit artists.  The project provides access to technology, equipment and training to support the creation and dissemination of Inuit media arts, with the goal of preserving and promoting Inuit culture, language and heritage.
“[The Internet] can definitely be challenging at times, but it has gotten a lot better in the past couple of years,” says Jessica Winters, a painter, printmaker and textile artist from Makkovik, Nunatsiavut, NL, currently living in St. John’s, NL. Starlink, the satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX, is now available in Makkovik, with initiatives underway to bring the service to other Canadian Arctic communities. “[The Internet] is much easier to access with [Starlink] going on sale,” she says. However, the cost is still prohibitive for many families, who depend on the availability of discounts and sales.
Despite these varied approaches, the digital divide continues to pose significant challenges for Inuit artists and Inuit more broadly, especially those in rural and remote areas. For them it is not a hypothetical problem but a living reality. The lack of reliable broadband internet access exacerbates existing disparities and artists’ ability to fully be able to showcase their talents. The efforts of IsumaTV Network, the Inuit Art Foundation, Pinnguaq and Nordicity demonstrate a few examples of what is possible and show the importance of inclusivity in fostering meaningful artistic experiences and human connections.
By working to bridge the digital divide, we can create more equitable and connected communities. I dream of a day where I will be able to stream my family's faces in 4K resolution and have the ability to share and see more beautiful Inuit art online.
1 Tim Sheehan, “Roughly 25 Percent of Fresno County, Calif., Lacks Internet,” Government Technology, accessed March 2023, https://www.govtech.com/network/roughly-25-percent-of-fresno-county-calif-lacks-internet-.html.
2 Brittany Collier, “Broadband Internet in Indigenous Communities,” Library of Parliament, accessed March 2023, https://hillnotes.ca/2021/12/08/broadband-internet-in-indigenous-communities/.
3 Jim Bell, “Northern internet providers support the Liberal budget’s broadband promise—with conditions,” Nunatsiaq News, accessed March 2023, https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/northern-internet-providers-support-the-liberal-budgets-broadband-promise-with-conditions/.
4 Eldred Allen, “Looking Down From Up” Inuit Art Foundation, November 7, 2019, https://www.inuitartfoundation.org/iaq-online/gallery-44-emerging-artist-spotlight-eldred-allen.
5 Laisa Audlaluk-Watsko, “Looking Down From Up” Inuit Art Foundation, November 7, 2019, https://www.inuitartfoundation.org/iaq-online/gallery-44-emerging-arctic-photographer-spotlight-laisa-audlaluk-watsko.
6 IsumaTV, “IsumaTV Mediaplayer Distribution Network,” accessed March 2023, http://www.isuma.tv/media-players-network.
7 Developing Qanuqtuurniq: Artist Portal, “Frequently Asked Questions,” Inuit Art Foundation, accessed March 2023, https://www.inuitartfoundation.org/portal/about-the-artist-portal/faq#tech.
8 Pinnguaq, “Supporting Inuit Artists Through Co-Design Initiative,” January 14, 2021, https://pinnguaq.com/stories/supporting-inuit-artists-co-design/.
Chantal Jung is a writer and multidisciplinary artist from Nunatsiavut whose practice involves collage, video animation and zine creation.
This project was made possible with the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts.