Courtesy of the Federal Government
Debbie Brisebois
, Inuit Broadcasting Corporation

October 1990

*Whiteout: An Arctic weather condition – high winds, blowing snow, zero visibility, which virtually cripples affected areas.

For the members of any hunting culture, flexibility and adaptation…the ability to respond quickly to changes in the geographic or cultural environment…is the key to survival. The growth of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation is a dramatic illustration of one such adaptation, and exemplifies both the capacity for creative change that is part of the Inuit heritage, and the challenge faced by aboriginal people in 1990 as they attempt to save their languages and cultures.

It was clear to the Inuit leadership that television, with its capacity to flood every living room in the arctic with images from the consumer-driven south, represented a unique and potentially devastating threat to a culture already reeling from the impact of trade, education and religion. When CBC introduced its Accelerated Coverage Plan (ACP) in 1975, reaction from the Inuit community was swift and sharp. The ACP proposed to provide CBC television programming to all communities in Canada with populations of over 500. Since the objective of ACP was to make “Canadian” programming…that is, a mixture of southern Canadian and American…available to all, no consideration was given to local access, to programming in aboriginal languages, or to a community’s right to control the local airwaves.

It is difficult to describe how shocking the invasion of television to an Arctic community could be. An Inuit woman once described her feelings upon watching “All in the Family” for the first time.

“…There was the father, obviously a stupid man, screaming at his children and his wife. He seemed to hate them. They were lying to him, they were treating with contempt, they were screaming back at him…and then in the last five minutes everyone kissed and made up…We were always taught to treat our elders with respect. I was embarrassed for those people on TV. I thought, I always knew white people were weird. I wondered if that was really what people were like in the South…”

Programming depicting southern attitudes, values and behaviors proliferated in the North throughout the mid-seventies. Inuit and community leaders were quick to realize that this electronic tidal wave of alien images and information would lead to the deterioration of Inuit language and culture, and could disrupt the fragile structures of traditional community life.

Inuit have successfully adapted to technological innovation several times throughout their history. Neither firearms nor snowmobiles are indigenous to the North, but both have become central elements of contemporary Inuit hunting culture. It was clear that television in the North was not going to go away; the challenge for Inuit was to find a way of adapting to this technology to their own ends, using television as a vehicle for the protection of their language, rather than as an agent of its destruction.

The Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) is a national organization which represents Inuit of the Northwest Territories, Northern Quebec and Labrador. From 1975 to 1978, ITC lobbied federal funding and regulatory bodies for a measure of control over Northern television. ITC’s proposal found support at the Department of Communications (DOC), which in the late seventies was attempting to market Canadian satellite communication services.

The result was the “Inukshuk” Project, a two year experiment during which the DOC provided ITC with access to a transponder on the Anik B satellite. For DOC, Inukshuk was a dramatic demonstration of the potential of the Canadian telecommunications system; for Inuit it was their first opportunity to see their values, culture and language on television, through the eyes of their own video makers.

Rudimentary television production facilities were installed in Pond Inlet, Baker Lake, Iqaluit (Frobisher Bay), Cambridge Bay, Igloolik and Arviat (Eskimo Point), and teams of newly-recruited Inuit trainees began to learn the fundamentals of TV production. Video playback equipment was installed in communities which, had barely begun to receive television. Funding for the training, production and distribution of Inuktitut language television programming was provided by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

The first Inukshuk videotapes circulated among communities and were locally screened in community halls, council chambers, and classrooms. In 1980, the Inukshuk Project began broadcasting via the Anik B satellite from Iqaluit. Audio and video signals were transmitted from Iqaluit to five other community production units. For interactive broadcasts, audio signals from these communities were fed back to Iqaluit by phone line and then rebroadcast via the uplink.

This interactive capacity led to some of the project’s most innovative and important programming. Long distances, difficult travel conditions and exorbitant airfares make Arctic meetings extremely difficult, time-consuming and expensive for residents of the North. The Inukshuk Project provided a low-cost and practical alternative, anticipating today’s audio/video teleconferencing. A territories-wide meeting of Hunters and Trappers Associations discussed wildlife management and local hunting conditions; officials of the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) consulted simultaneously with local education committees across the Arctic; firefighters from six communities shared techniques and tips via the Inukshuk system.

Although many of the television programs were rudimentary by southern standards, the great achievement of the Inukshuk Project was to prove that an Inuit television network was technically feasible, and that Inuktitut television would attract viewers, and could thus play a major role in preserving the Inuit language and culture.

Inuit leaders began immediately to lobby for the creation of a permanent Inuit broadcasting system. The Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) established a special committee, which began known as the Therrien Committee, for its chairman, the late Real Therrien. Hearings were held in several Northern communities, and it was in Baker Lake that ITC presented a proposal calling for the establishment of an Inuit Broadcasting System. The final report of the Therrien committee endorsed that proposal.


In 1981, the CRTC granted a network television license to ITC, and the Inuit
Broadcasting Corporation was formed. Interim operational funding was made granted for two years from the department of Indian and Northern Affairs, and the new network incorporated as an entity separate and independent from its political progenitor. After an initial period of production and consolidation, IBC aired its first program on January 11, 1982, at midnight…a ninety-minute special introducing the new network.

Within weeks of IBC’s launching, two problems became apparent. The first, a difficulty IBC shares with every public broadcaster in Canada, was inadequate funding. The incorporation of IBC as an entity distinct from the Inuit Tapirisat was a political necessity, essential to ensure the objectivity to the new broadcaster; but that separation necessitated the creation of a whole new administrative superstructure. IBC now required full time managers, administrators, accountants and bookkeepers, as well as a salaried president and a Board of Governors. However, funding for IBC from the federal government was based on the costs for the Inukshuk Project, which had relied to a large degree, on ITC’s administrative services. Funding which had been adequate for an experiment were not sufficient to sustain a permanent network.

The other issue confronting the fledging broadcaster was distribution. Inukshuk had had virtually unrestricted access to the Anik B satellite, an arrangement which, as we have seen, made a wide range of programming options possible. However, programs produced by the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation had to be broadcast during timeslots provided by the CBC Northern Service under a special interim agreement: and although CBC was generally supportive of aboriginal broadcasting, the new arrangement seriously limited both the scope of IBC programming and IBC’s access to its audience. All programs had to conform to CBC’s program durations ( 28:50 or 58:50). IBC’s programs were scheduled after 11:00 p.m., and were preempted or cancelled if CBC needed the channel. During Stanley Cup playoffs, it was not uncommon for IBC producers to see an entire week of their time-sensitive current affairs programming cancelled by the CBC.

The answer was obvious…a dedicated Northern satellite transponder, a distribution system that could be shared by IBC, other Northern Aboriginal Broadcasters, and the CBC Northern Service. IBC first proposed this concept in 1982, in its first position paper on Northern Broadcasting. As we shall see, that proposal bore fruit six years later.

IBC was one of several aboriginal communications companies growing in the early eighties. All across Canada, Indian and Inuit television, radio and newspaper services were thriving, reaching out to tiny clusters of aboriginal people in remote communities unserved by CBC or the Globe and Mail. The proliferation of aboriginal communications societies, both in the Arctic and in the Northern regions of most provinces, compelled the federal government to come to terms with this rapidly growing sector. In 1983 the government announced the principles that would guide it in the development of policies and programs dealing with aboriginal communications. The principles were:

  1. Northern residents should be offered access to an increasing range of programming choices through the exploitation of technological opportunities;
  2. Northern native people should have the opportunity of active participation in the CRTC’s determination of the character, quality and priority of programming to be broadcast in predominantly native communities.
  3. In order to maintain and develop their culture and languages, Northern native people should have fair access to broadcasting distribution systems in the North;
  4. Wherever native people form a significant proportion of the population of a service area, programming which is both relevant to native concerns and includes content originated by native people should be produced for distribution by Northern broadcasting services;
  5. Government agencies engaged in establishing broadcasting policies which affect native culture should consult regularly with Northern broadcasting representatives.

In light of later political developments, it is essential to bear in mind that these points remain the basis of federal policy to this day.

Recognizing that abstract policy unsupported by a program is meaningless, in 1983 the federal government announced the creation of the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program (NNBAP), a four year, $40.3M program administered by the Department of the Secretary of the State. The NNBAP was not without its shortcomings: it provided no funding for training, and set an unrealistically low cost of $5,000/hr on television production. (CBC estimates the cost of television production at $14,000/hr). Despite these and other limitations, the NNBAP provided essential operational funding to thirteen aboriginal broadcasters in Canada; its introduction marked a watershed in the development of aboriginal communications.


Between 1983 and 1987, the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation diversified and increased its programming, developed the skills of its staff, and consolidated its production, administrative and training systems and structures. Production centers in Iqaluit, Cambridge Bay, Igloolik, Baker Lake and Arviat (a facility relocated to Rankin Inlet in 1985) shipped programs weekly to the network center in Iqaluit. In 1983, all the network’s production centers pooled their resources as IBC took on the role of host communicator for the Third Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Iqaluit, coordinating all media coverage and providing services and facilities to over 100 visiting journalists from around the world. In one week, IBC produced an extraordinary sixty-seven hours of coverage, fifty hours of, which was live. Canada’s youngest network had come of age.

From 1983 to 1984, IBC developed and implemented a series of comprehensive in-house training programs, which combined technical instruction, journalism, and language and cultural workshops with practical hands-on experience in production. The principles and programs developed by IBC refined over the decade have become the basis of training for most of the aboriginal television broadcasters in Canada.

IBC’s programming schedule was based on a series of in-depth audience surveys, and reflected the needs and preferences of IBC’s Inuit audience. Coverage of current affairs was an important part of IBC’s mandate. The Eighties were a decade of extraordinary political development for the North, and IBC played a crucial role in keeping abreast of the issues through their coverage of the first ministers conferences on aboriginal rights, division of the Northwest Territories, Land Claims negotiations and resource development. IBC was in many cases the only source of Inuktitut coverage of these issues; audiences came to depend on IBC for information in their own language and from the perspective of their own culture.

IBC’s cultural programming has taught traditional skills to younger Inuit, entertained older Inuit, and provided valuable video documentation of myths and legends of the Inuit culture. In a 1988 survey, over half of IBC’s audience confirmed they had learned about both traditional skills and improved the quality of their language by watching IBC.

In 1987, following four years of research, fundraising and training, IBC introduced Takuginai, a children’s television series which featured legendary heroes, animation, and a puppet family, all based on a carefully designed curriculum teaching Inuit cultural values and language skills. In 1989, IBC premiered Qaujisaut, a fast-paced, irreverent program covering topics of interest to teenagers, a hitherto undeserved portion of the audience.

Over the years, IBC, in cooperation with several federal or territorial government departments, has produced a wide range of special programs on topical issues such as spousal assault, alcohol and drug abuse, AIDS prevention, and midwifery in the Arctic. Although there is no shortage of material available on any of these topics, IBC programs have been singularly successful at communicating information and attitudes in a uniquely Inuit context, with culturally appropriate language and imagery.

And is IBC reaching its audience? Although statistics are always open to interpretation, there is no doubt that the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation has established a large and loyal viewership among the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic. Three comprehensive audience surveys, conducted in 1984, 1985, and 1988, confirm that 95 percent of NWT Inuit watch and enjoy between one and three hours of IBC programming every week. No southern broadcaster can boast of that large an audience share.


Since its creation IBC has faced a serious bottleneck in the area of distribution. The “interim agreement” with CBC is still in effect, after nine years. Although the timeslots have improved, IBC programs are still subject to preemption, and the network is still limited to sharply defined program durations based on CBC’s network schedule. The experimental interactive broadcasts of Inukshuk or extended live coverage of Northern events are thus impossible.
In the 1982 Position Paper, IBC proposed the creation of a Northern transponder, a truly Northern service to be shared by all the Arctic broadcasters. Although initial reaction from the government was skeptical, IBC pursued this policy. Meanwhile, the already inadequate distribution system was further threatened by CBC’s announcement of their “Canadianization” policy, which will see the removal on non-CBC programming from the network’s schedule. Produced by Canada’s first nations are not, apparently, “Canadian” enough.

With the proliferation of cable systems, satellite dishes and VCR’s in the North, as well as the impending “Canadianization” of the CBC, the federal government recognized the need to come to terms with the distribution issue. In 1988, the Department of Communications approved research and development funds for a new Northern television network based on a proposal, which had been submitted by Television Northern Canada (TVNC). TVNC is a consortium consisting of 6 aboriginal broadcasters (including IBC), the NWT and Yukon Governments, the National Aboriginal Communications Society and the CBC Northern Service. TVNC will provide the dedicated northern transponder IBC first advocated in 1982 to provide a real first service for Northerners. In February 1990, the federal government approved $10 million over four years to establish the network. Installation of hardware has begun and TVNC is expected to be operational in the fall of 1991. TVNC will provide better and more timeslots for IBC.

In 1984, the Nielson Task Force on Federal Programs reviewed the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program (NNBAP) and the Native Communications Program. The Task Force concluded that both programs were achieving their goals, and that no realistic alternative to the programs existed.

In 1986, both programs were evaluated by an independent firm, and were judged highly successful. In 1987, both programs were renewed and given permanent status.
In February 1990, with no warning or consultation, the federal budget eliminated the
Native Communications Program, which provided IBC’s funding for drama and entertainment programming; it also cut the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program by 16%. In one day, IBC lost $50,000 in federal funding, roughly a quarter of its core budget for television production, at the same time that funds were provided for the new network TVNC. Despite the abruptness, and extent of the cut, IBC fared relatively well; funding for native newspapers was eliminated altogether, and since the budget, several have either shut down or announced their plans to close. The only explanation given by the government was that the cuts were made in the name of deficit reduction. Departmental spokespeople have refused to discuss the criteria or rationale that led to the singling out of the Native Communications Program for destruction; they have simply, repeated categorically that funding will not be restored.

An analysis of the budget cut shows disproportionate shares of the cutbacks were borne by aboriginal groups and women’s organizations. Virtually all funding was restored to the women’s programs within three months of the budget, thanks to an aggressive and effective lobby. Unfortunately, aboriginal people form too small a portion of the Canadian electorate to have impact of the women’s lobby, so the social costs of the governments deficit reduction exercise, one again, are being borne by those least able to afford it.

In response to public pressure, the Secretary of State, Gerry Weiner, appointed an interdepartmental task force to review the impact of the cuts after the fact, and to “assist” groups who had lost funding under the NCP to “diversify” their sources of revenue. Cynics in the community maintained that this task force was simply a way to defer discussion of the issue until media attention had died away; and after a six month wait the cynics were proved right by the release of the task force’s “findings”. The minister’s recommendation to IBC was, in essence, that IBC apply for funds to other federal departments. This enlightened suggestion is even more redundant that it seems; IBC was already negotiating with every funding source suggested in the Minister’s letter.

The budget has cast a relationship between aboriginal broadcasters and the federal government in a whole new light. Prior to February, aboriginal broadcasters assumed that the government was committed to the principle of public broadcasting for native people. Up to this point, the government had always dealt in good faith on the issue of communication services. But the cuts occurred without warning, without consultation, and without any analysis of the likely impacts. The failure of government to explain their rational leaves aboriginal broadcasters across Canada wondering what the intention of the government is.

The impact on IBC was real, immediate, and serious. The company has closed down its facilities and laid off all staff in the Kitikmeot Region; reduced staff throughout the organization; and cut back its weekly programming by twenty percent. Training, the lifeblood of the corporation, has been reduced; maintenance and equipment replacement has been cut back; salaries have been frozen. Though the company is trying to seek alternate sources of funding, these internal cutbacks were necessary in order to avoid a corporate deficit.

It’s been suggested that the present government plans to force aboriginal broadcasters into business by gradually reducing federal funding. This argument is supported by the gradual erosion of funding for other public broadcasters, most notable the CBC. IBC is irrevocably opposed to the privatization of aboriginal media. IBC operates in a region of high unemployment, low poor capita income, minimal economic activity…not a market that can support high advertising budgets.

The CRTC’s recently released policy on aboriginal broadcasting opens the door to limited commercialization of aboriginal stations. But commercialization threatens the entire premise of an Inuit Broadcasting Corporation. IBC is presently accountable to its audience; programs format, content and language of broadcast arise directly from the needs and preference of Inuit. The highest incomes in the Arctic are earned by non-natives, who in most cases, speak English and enjoy southern style television. That is the market advertisers will want to reach. If IBC and other native broadcasters are compelled to support themselves through advertising, their target audiences, language of broadcast and programming will become indistinguishable from southern television…and the entire point of aboriginal television will be lost. A unique Canadian phenomenon, and one of the most imaginative uses of television worldwide, will come to an end.

IBC’s goal is to convince the federal government that aboriginal broadcasting must be protected as a legitimate, fundamental element of the Canadian Broadcasting System. Since 1985, IBC has suggested that it should be funded the same way as the CBC…through Treasury Board, and not through a program subject to criteria changes, financial cutbacks, or cancellation based on political whim. As a step towards the legitimizing of aboriginal broadcasting, IBC and other aboriginal broadcasters are advocating that administration of the NNBAP be transferred to the Department of Communications, out of DSOS. This would ensure coordination with the development of TVNC, and establish the program in an environment geared towards the broadcasting communications sector.

In the long term, IBC feels the government must clarify its vision regarding the future of aboriginal communications. Lip service is being paid to the concept while dollars, the real measure of federal commitment, are being quietly cut.
The February budget was a serious setback to aboriginal broadcasting. The challenge for IBC in the years ahead will be to restore what has been lost, and to return to its plan of growth and development. The company will continue to seek alternative funding while maintaining the principle that access to public broadcasting in their own language is a right of all aboriginal Canadians.