Imagine living in a place so remote that an airplane is the only available transportation to the next town, a place so rural that your plane is delayed because caribou have to be shooed off the gravel landing strip. The Canadian territory of Nunavut is just such a place--2.1 million square kilometers (about one-fifth of Canada and nearly five times the size of California) with a population of 27,500 (fewer people than Palm Springs) living in 28 communities.
Just for context, says Carol Rigby, head of technical services for Nunavut Public Library Services, The Nunavut Handbook says "the distance between the easternmost point of Nunavut and the farthest western boundary is about 2,400 kilometers, the distance between London and Istanbul."
The challenges facing the indigenous Inuit people of the region, who make up 85% of the population, and those facing the "southerners," who brave life in the far north to establish library and information services, are sometimes similar but more often quite different. For all the residents, life in treeless Nunavut--from the tundra of the west to the majestic mountains and glaciers of the north and east--is life in touch with the raw power of nature, which permits only those armed with knowledge of the land to survive and even to thrive.
What's the biggest challenge facing Robin Brown, policy manager for NPLS in Baker Lake? "Loneliness," she says, quite simply. Brown moved north from Alberta in 2002 to take the job without ever even having visited the town of 1,453 residents.
Perseverance in the Great White North
"Our number-one critical problem," says Rigby, whose technical services operation is headquartered in a separate section of the public library in Iqaluit, near the southern end of Baffin Island, "is staffing of technical positions. It's difficult to get people to work in remote areas."
In addition to the isolation, the high cost of living in the Great White North is a deterrent, says Rigby, who has lived in the Baffin region since 1985. At $3.29, a dozen eggs can seem like quite a gourmet purchase, while bananas at 75 cents each can strain the wallet. Everything must be flown in at considerable expense. Even though government workers receive a "northern allowance" to balance the scales, it frequently is not enough to attract qualified workers. One of the goals of NPLS is to train indigenous people for library work. Community members are eager for the opportunity, says Brown, and many see the library's potential to serve as a family cultural center and a connection to the outside world.
The cost of bringing technology to remote parts of Canada is something the Canadian government began to address in 1997, says Neil Burgess of the Department of Education in Iqaluit. The capital of Nunavut and its largest town, with close to 6,000 people, Iqaluit was the first community to be wired in the government's Community Access Program (CAP). There are now 17 CAP sites in the territory, with funding from Industry Canada. In Iqaluit the CAP site is administered by a local group called the Nuluaq Society. "Nuluaq" means "net" in Inuktitut, the Inuit language spoken in Nunavut.
More bandwidth and high-speed Internet access at a decent price would be a great improvement, says Burgess. "It's 25,000 times higher than it costs in the south because it's all satellite-based." Sending a simple e-mail message can require as many as four satellite hops, he notes.
The new and the old
In Pond Inlet, a Baffin Island community of 1,500 located roughly 420 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the local population is well served by a large, modern facility that opened in 1996. "Lots of hard work and lots of lobbying" is what made it happen, says local librarian Philippa Ootoowak.
Ootoowak came to Pond Inlet in 1973 as a nurse, married a local man, and stayed to raise a family. …