The medium was the message
At last week’s conference on the future of work in Nunavut, many people communicated many messages to each other and to the people of Nunavut.
Some people had a lot to say about stuff that wasn’t directly connected to the subject of the conference suicide, racism, government cut-backs and other longstanding subjects of complaint.
Other people did. Those were the people who talked about job-sharing, part-time work, self-employment, compressed work hours, telework, and other new, and not so new ways of making a living and organizing work.
But the most important message was conveyed by the form in which the content of the conference was wrapped.
For three days, Nunavut was transformed into a great electronic meeting hall. That meeting hall included everyone Inuit and non-Inuit, young and old, men and women. And to a degree never seen before in Nunavut, so were the handicapped people confined to wheelchairs, along with deaf and blind people.
Inuktitut-English interpreters worked with American sign language interpreters who were connected electronically to captionists working in Toronto, Detroit and New York. The work of the captionists and the interpreters was broadcast simultaneously on TVNC, along with words and images from the conference.
At regular intervals, conference participants in Iqaluit used videoconferencing to speak face-to-face with groups in Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay.
And groups in other communities such as Igloolik, Baker Lake, and Gjoa Haven communicated regularly with Iqaluit via telephone, as they watched the proceedings live on television.
By today’s standards, most telecommunication services now available in Nunavut through NorthwesTel and others is slow, unreliable and primitive. But if the people of Nunavut can be connected so well through such outdated services, just imagine what we’ll be able to do with a real telecommunications infrastructure.
The most important message of the conference is this: The people of Nunavut will choose own their own ways of making a living and communicating with one another. And the people of Nunavut are ready to use new technologies to build a new territory that will serve their interests and express their values.
What the people of Nunavut do not want, as John Amagoalik said so forcefully at the end of the conference, is to live in a world where human beings work themselves to death in a brutal struggle of all against all.
In the South, it’s become fashionable for many elitists to preach that the new information economy will bring about such a world and that we all need to get ready for the coming war.
But that’s not what we in Nunavut want, as Amagoalik reminded us: “Humans were meant to rise above this sort of thing, and we want this to happen up here,” Amagoalik said.
Technological change does have painful side-effects. Many jobs are now unnecessary but new jobs and new ways of doing those jobs are also being created. And because technology makes our labour more productive, we also have more leisure time.
We in Nunavut now have the opportunity to be leaders. Unencumbered by all the bankrupt ideologies that many southern Canadians still cling to, we can teach the rest of the world how to live in the twenty-first century.
As economist Michael McCracken said, Nunavut is the post-industrial future that the rest of the world is seeking to understand. Believe it or not, he and many other southern experts are now looking at us for answers.
It’s disappointing, therefore, that the GNWT’s political leaders decided that it wasn’t worth their while to attend last week’s Iqaluit gathering. The GNWT is still a major employer of Nunavut residents.
It’s even more disappointing that Nunatsiaq MP Jack Anawak, a GNWT ally who is expected to soon become Nunavut’s interim commissioner, didn’t bother to show up either.
If Anawak expects to be taken seriously as a candidate for Nunavut’s top job, then he needs to show that he appreciates and understands the issues that Nunavut residents raised at last week’s conference.
Lastly, Ottawa must understand that Canada needs a Nunavut that is linked to the rest of the world by the best telecommunications system that we can afford.
And that means Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin must change his mind and accept that a telecommunications infrastructure is a reasonable incremental cost of creating Nunavut.