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Notes 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 three hours.

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 cultural treasure.
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 period.

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 60. 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 required.

• 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.

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