How TV helps preserve Eskimo culture in Canada's far north
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories — ``Ratting in the Delta'' may not be prime time television in most of Canada. But it was a major event for the native Inuit (Eskimos) of Inuvik on the Mackenzie River delta this fall. The program was the first to be produced by the Inuvialuit Communications Society -- in a sense, the new Inuvik TV station.
The show was about hunting muskrats in the delta at the northern edge of continental North America. What made it special was that the Inuvialuit -- the regional band of Inuit -- were able to a see a program about themselves in their own language.
Many ``southerners'' may not realize that at least 86 percent of the 25,000 Inuit living in the Northwest Territories, northern Quebec, and Labrador now have access to television through a satellite broadcast system.
Visitors to such villages tell of calling on Inuit families and finding the children watching Dallas, ice hockey, or some other popular program.
However, Inuit leaders became concerned that their people were losing their culture and language, partially because of TV. Canada's government responded with a program to develop Inuit TV.
The government, says Mr. Smith, ``doesn't buy the melting pot theory.'' It wants to encourage natives and ethnics to maintain their own language and culture, as well as learn English and French.
So in 1979, the government financed the Inukshuk Project, an experimental program designed to bring local television programming to the Inuit of the eastern Arctic.
That led to the formation of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation in 1981. Today this mini-TV network with an annual budget of $1.6 million has its head office in Ottawa, but its main production center in Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island.
Mr. Smith and four other ``Quadlanaat'' (whites) were hired under a government contract to train a group of 17 Inuit in the skills of both broadcast and print journalism, including the production of a local weekly newspaper. They serve seven communities in the MacKenzie River delta area.
Smith's background includes degrees in sociology and journalism from Canadian schools, and experience in television in Australia. He hopes an Inuit assistant will be able to take over the program in a year or so.
The Inuk helping produce ``Ratting in the Delta'' had never been in a TV studio before last January. She had no idea of how a television show was produced. ``Now she is producing her own shows,'' notes Smith.
The first weekly shows have been 15 minutes long. In January, the studio will start producing a half hour program, and next September plans for one hour programs.
The video tape, a complete package that inclues titles and music, is flown from Inuvik to Ottawa. There it is scheduled by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, sent out of Toronto to a satellite which rebroadcasts back to disc receivers in each Inuit community. There it is rebroadcast again for the local audience.
``This is the leading edge in terms of remote communications,'' says Smith.
Inuit Broadcasting Corporation hopes to get more than its current 5 1/2 hours a week of broadcast time next year and will then include some programs from Smith's operation, says Debbie Brisebois, executive director.
Another program produced by the Inuvialuit Communications Society covered a meeting of the Inuvialuit elders. A third featured the ``Northern Games,'' a competition among the Inuit of the region.
Cost of the whole Inuvialuit training program and its shows for an entire year is far less than a one-hour program of ``Dallas,'' says Smith.
Television in Inuvik and its neighboring communities becomes an important pastime in this season. Being north of the Arctic Circle, the sun sinks below the horizon for some six weeks on December 7. The residents must put up with about two hours of twilight a day, as well as the extreme cold that makes outdoor life difficult.
``The TV is always on,'' says Smith of many homes in that community of around 3,000 people. Some households have videocassette recorders and will rent three or four movies a night.
Many older Inuit have in one generation moved from a simple hunting life, living in igloos in winter and tents in summer, to one complicated by modern technology, snowmobiles, aircraft, television, government housing and welfare, and, unfortunately, liquor and other ills of modern society.
``The best thing they could do in the North is get rid of booze altogether,'' says Smith.
IBC programs dealing with Inuit culture and the recollections of elders, Smith maintains, give the Inuit a chance ``to reflect on their own heritage. They need role models from their own culture. They need opportunities to hear and use their own language.''