Aajiiqatigiingniq: Isuma’s Digital Indigenous Democracy Project
by Emily Laurent Henderson
The first place I encountered a fraction of the goliath that is the Digital Indigenous Democracy (DID) project from Igloolik-based media collective Isuma Productions was in Venice in 2019. It seems counter-intuitive that my first glimpse into an ongoing digital intervention into mining development on Inuit homelands would be so far away from those homelands, especially as an Inuk myself. While representing Canada at the Biennale that year, one of the things they screened was My Father’s Land (Ataatama Nunanga) (2012), which comprises footage of the surrounding lands of filmmaker and Isuma co-founder Zacharias Kunuk’s home community of Igloolik from 1995 onward, interspersed with his testimony at the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) in 2012. Developed as a response to the proposed Baffinland Mary River iron ore mine, the film is just one component of a sprawling community-focused media archive regarding the development of the mine near the communities of Igloolik and Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) which Isuma has been striving to make as accessible as possible to Inuit living in the region.
Community consultations with Indigenous communities regarding extractive developments that will affect the health of the surrounding populations have been fraught across the country, with communities and corporations having differing ideas on what constitutes adequate consultation. Resource extraction on Indigenous land is always led with tactics of colonial entitlement that lack respect and consideration for those who live on and take care of the land. Indigenous peoples have continually adapted their responses to this experience.
It is in the spirit of independent media distribution that Isuma has been able to shape community involvement in the mine’s development and recent proposed expansion. NIRB took on the community and environmental impact review process and consultations, and Isuma founded the DID project to share relevant information and content as broadly as possible, beginning first with Inuktitut-language radio broadcasts in 2012. During the early days of the NIRB consultations, Isuma combined their work and content to create a multimedia human rights impact assessment that included radio, film, social media, and television and contracted the help of human rights lawyer Lloyd Lipsett to represent the interests of Inuit during the hearings. It was intentionally designed to be reflective of _aajiiqatigiingniq_—an Inuit method for consensus-based decision making, which in this case invited as many Inuit voices as possible through whichever medium was most accessible to them. Over time, the DID project expanded to include video testimonials from Inuit, which could be conducted entirely in Inuktitut, and provided participants the option to self-tape and upload their own videos. The collective has also focused on making Inuit-specific media available to northerners, including through the installation of media players across the territory of Nunavut to address the lack of access to high-speed internet.
Isuma broadcasted the NIRB hearings for the current proposed expansion of the Mary River Mine on Uvagut TV, Canada’s first Inuktut channel, from January 25 to February 6. This development would double iron ore output from 6 million to 12 million tonnes per year, and build a 100-km railway to cart the product to sea. The railway has proven especially controversial, with Inuit hunters asserting it will scare away the caribou herds they rely on. It was not until hunters blockaded the airstrip to access the Mary River Mine site in early February 2021—signalling the culmination of frustrations with the NIRB processes in which Inuit stating their concerns had not been adequately heard—that I and many who make up the southern Inuit diaspora began to grasp the full extent of the situation and the role the DID has played throughout. Isuma documents and shares this process not only to impel community involvement, but also to communicate Inuit perspectives and values to outsiders. Petitions and images of iron ore dust that had polluted sea ice, fishing, and hunting sites circulated on social media, particularly from the Facebook page “Respect Inuit or Leave.” Also at this time, Isuma shared testimonials on the radio and through their website. Watching from Toronto using the internet, I participated and observed as my community members and friends rallied against the Baffinland expansion, while my own family responded to parallel developments on our homelands of west Greenland.
Near the community of Narsaq, Greenland, Inuit have been responding in similar ways to land being made available to a uranium mine that poses the risk of radioactive contamination. At the time of writing this article in spring 2021, community consultation has effectively failed and Inuit have been forced to take initiative against the mine in a remarkably similar way to Isuma’s. Artist and traditional tattooist Paninnguaq Lind Jensen spent the early spring of 2021 travelling the southwest coast of Greenland collecting testimonies and stories from Inuit that would be affected by the mining, all to be included in the upcoming documentary White Paper (2021). Much like Inuit in Canada, the sense of frustration about and silencing from the extractive industry has been overwhelming, and community-produced media has been born out of necessity to address these uneven power dynamics.
Isuma’s multifaceted practice, the DID project, and films such as White Paper represent more than protest—they are assertions of sovereignty. Across the globe, Indigenous communities are responding to extractivist development on their lands in ways that reflect their own values and ways of knowing, rather than remaining confined to corporate or federal reviews or impact reports—like the Tseil-Waututh Nation did in 2016 by releasing their own independent environmental impact review of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. The DID project centres not only Inuktut, but also an Inuit worldview, relationships to the land, knowledge of place, and the values that have upheld Inuit life and society for generations.