for an address by Debbie Brisebois
Oct. 5 2006 – On March 28, 2005,
an old wooden building in Nain, Labrador, burnt to the ground.
The fire itself was nothing unusual – old structures in the Arctic
tend to get dry and combustible. And thankfully this time there was no
loss of life. But this particular building was the home of the OkalaKatiget
society of Labrador, the province’s only Inuit broadcasting organization.
The Inuit of Labrador and the people of Canada lost a priceless archive
of film, video, audiotapes, photographs and interview notes on language,
culture, and history. There were no digital versions, no copies, and no
offsite storage. The irreplaceable chronicle of a people disappeared in
My name is Debbie Brisebois, and I am Executive Director of the Inuit
Broadcasting Corporation, or IBC. For more than twenty years I’ve
been privileged to be part of the development of a national Aboriginal
broadcasting system, a network based in northern and remote communities,
but reaching the entire country. To build that system we’ve faced
a lot of challenges, as you can imagine. Today I want to talk to you about
one of those challenges – the potential disappearance of an irrecoverable
To understand what I’m talking about you need to know just a bit
about the history of Aboriginal broadcasting in Canada. Let me give you
the one-minute version of a thirty-year process.
Canadian Inuit have been involved in media production since the 1960s
and 1970s, volunteering in local community radio stations and occasionally
working for southern based broadcasters or film producers. But actual
broadcasting by and for Aboriginal Canadians in the Arctic was almost
nonexistent until 1973, when the Canadian government launched the Native
Communications Program. The Program was intended to encourage the expression
of Native points of view and interests through the development of communications
societies. It funded community newspapers, trail and community radio,
and a film society in Iqaluit, Nunavut on Baffin Island.
In 1978, Canada launched the Anik B Program to test potential uses for
its new communications satellite. One area of particular interest to the
government was the use of satellite technology for TV production in the
Arctic. Inuit in Canada are represented by a national organization, then
known as the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada. ITC recognized an opportunity,
and initiated the Inukshuk Project.
Working with engineers, freelance trainers, experienced producers and
Inuit trainees, Inukshuk explored a number of innovative ways to use television
for communication. For the first time, low-cost, portable video production
equipment let producers record images and segments out on the land: and
the free satellite uplinks allowed six Inuit communities to talk to each
other interactively without limit. These were isolated communities whose
only connection with the rest of the world was a weekly flight; but thanks
to Inukshuk, parents could see and talk to their children a thousand kilometres
away at school. The experiment was a huge success, both technically and
with northern audiences.
Inukshuk was also happening at a critical point in the political and cultural
evolution of the north. Inuit were beginning to negotiate major Land Claims
agreements with Canada; there was a move to create a new territory that
would be called Nunavut; and new techniques in marketing and production
were bringing northern Art to a whole new national and international audience.
Inuit culture was entering the most radical transitional phase in history:
and the new trainee-producers of the Inukshuk project captured that entire
Their work didn’t look much like conventional television, and it
didn’t try to. Inukshuk producers weren’t interested in duplicating
southern styles and production formats. They were simply looking for ways
to help people to talk to each other through the new technology and to
record stories which had never been documented in any other fashion.
Now, I would love to be able to show you some of that early Inukshuk material.
It was high energy, unique, and culturally fascinating. Unfortunately,
I can’t. That material no longer exists, for reasons I’ll
discuss in a minute.
Inukshuk and a couple of other pilot projects set the stage for the Inuit
Broadcasting Corporation, and ultimately for the development of a whole
new Aboriginal broadcast sector. In 1983 the federal government announced
the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program, or NNBAP, a thirteen million
dollar fund designed to support Inuit and First Nations broadcast organizations
north of 60º. The NNBAP created a loose national network of northern programming
services, recording and archiving their culture and communities in film,
video and audio.
Over the last twenty years those organizations have evolved from small,
local broadcasters to sophisticated media operations producing the full
range of material you’d expect as part of any broadcast service.
On any given night you can turn on APTN, our national Aboriginal Peoples
Television Network, and you’ll see news, current affairs, drama,
comedy, children’s programming, documentaries…. in Aboriginal
languages, by Aboriginal producers, and reflecting Aboriginal reality.
I’d like to give you a feel for the work that’s being done
by those producers. Here’s a sampling of our recent programming.
That’s a sample our recent work. Now, I realize that I may be a
bit biased here, but I happen to think that Aboriginal broadcasting is
important television. In fact, I think it’s some of the most important
television being made in Canada today. The programs themselves have unique
artistic merit; we’ve won our share of awards, and some of our alumni
are now world famous. But more important is the fact that our producers
and our cameras have documented what may be the most important three decades
in Inuit history.
In the early 1900’s, in “Nanook of the North”, filmmaker
Robert Flaherty portrayed an Inuit culture essentially untouched by the
outside world. But Flaherty was an outsider, filming as curious observer.
Our videomakers have been recording the beginning of a whole new stage
in Inuit history; and they’re doing it from the inside. They’ve
captured the transition from dogteams to digital phones. Their work represents
the archive of a period that is absolutely unique in history.
But there is a growing gap in that archive. You may have noticed that
the material I showed you was all fairly recent. I would love to show
you some of that early Inukshuk material. But none of it has survived.
Not one frame.
All of the images from Inukshuk were recorded on some of the first portable
video units ever made – initially on open-reel, half-inch tapes,
then subsequently on three quarter inch video cassettes. Videotape, as
you know, is a very perishable medium; as it ages, the oxide particles
that record the image begin to separate from the base of the tape. The
binder that holds the elements of the tape together deteriorates and becomes
sticky with age, making replay of the tape virtually impossible.
You can prolong their life a little bit with proper storage. Appropriate
racking, shelving, temperature and humidity control, and magnetic protection
will all help preserve tapes for a few extra years. But here we run into
the realities of northern television production.
Our network headquarters, for example, operates out of a one-story former
fisheries warehouse assembled largely out of spare lumber from an abandoned
US military base. (SHOW GRUESOME SPRING FLOODING SLIDES) You’re
looking at our annual spring flood here. That’s our offices, our
studio, our technical department, our set storage, AND our tape library.
In the south this building would have been condemned: in the north, it’s
the best we can get. And we’re actually in better shape these days
than we were: the only storage area available for videotape storage in
our old Cambridge Bay studio was the washroom…and that was in the
pre-plumbing era of the Honey Bucket.
So after twenty-five years, none of the Inukshuk project videotapes have
survived, and a seminal stage of broadcasting history has been lost.
And sadly, that loss is continuing, and accelerating. Since 1984, the
year after the launch of the NNBAP, funding to Canada’s Aboriginal
broadcasters has declined in real and in absolute terms, year by year.
That’s had a terrible impact on our operating capacity. But one
of the less visible consequences of the NNBAP’s declining funding
level is the gradual loss of three decades of irreplaceable audio, video,
photographic and film materials of incalculable historical and cultural
significance. We estimate that we have a collection of tapes valued at
$20 million. We are quite simply without the resources to protect this
legacy; we cannot afford to store these materials in facilities that offer
adequate security or environmental protection, or to transfer them to
media that will ensure their long-term survival.
And the loss continues. In Rankin Inlet, this fire recently damaged both
our Kivalliq tape archives and some of the records of the Inuit Cultural
Institute. Another fire in Baker Lake wiped out hundreds of hours of video
recorded with elders telling their life stories and demonstrating traditional
skills on camera.
And our situation is not unique. Right across Canada, in communities like
Sioux Lookout and Salluit, a priceless historic resource is deteriorating
physically, stored in high-risk facilities.
What’s the answer? Well, the solution is obvious. Four steps are
• First, materials at risk in storage need to be transferred
immediately to a facility where they can be catalogued and stored under
conditions that will minimize any further damage.
• High priority and significant materials should be transferred
to less perishable media, and preferably digitized immediately. In recent
years, some of our most valuable productions have been restored.
• A centralized, digital collection should be assembled and
catalogued, as part of our national historical legacy; The National
Archives of Canada are currently preserving a selection of IBC programs
and storing them in Ottawa. Their effort is much appreciated; but it
doesn’t begin to meet the urgent need.
• And finally, funding for local preservation and archiving
should be made available for the material not necessarily of national
interest. We have literally hundreds of hours of unedited material drawn
from elders, many of them now passed on, telling stories of their childhood.
It may be years before an archivist transcribes them: but this resource
is literally a living library of traditional knowledge. Our goal is
the promotion of Inuit culture and language, and our roots are in the
communities, and we want that material to be available to the communities,
while youth can still learn from the elders.
We know that this legacy can still be saved. The good folks at the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation have helped us to restore some of our most important
work, including an amazing documentary by an Inuit broadcaster who chronicled
the first visit by Inuit to Ethiopia, in the wake of the 1985 famine.
Similarly, there is a major project underway to compile a definitive documentary
and learning package on the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement; we were able
to support that important initiative with restored video recordings of
the original negotiations and consultations. This material does not exist
anywhere else. It is much more than just a cultural curiosity; we are
trying to preserve irreplaceable moments in Canadian history.
In 2001 we asked that the Canadian Government explore program and funding
resources available for the transfer, preservation and protection of the
historical and cultural legacy of the Aboriginal broadcasters. We’re
still waiting for a response. Mind you, it’s only been five years,
but we’re beginning to think perhaps we may have to seek another
approach. Most recently, we have entered into a partnership with McGill
University to access International Polar Year funds to create a digital
archive of our video footage which will be accessible not only to arctic
researchers but most importantly by northern communities. And that’s
why I was delighted by your invitation to participate in this conference.
We are at a point in history when digital technology will allow us to
preserve the images and documents of this era in perpetuity. The opportunity
to do that for one of the world’s most unique cultures is slipping
away. I’ve been most interested over the last few days to hear about
the approach many of you have taken to similar issues under similar circumstances,
and I hope to learn more. I know that you share my concern: I just think
it would be a shame if researchers 100 years from now can summon up the
image of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl performance, while priceless
video of Inuit culture is lost forever.
— back to top —