At the inaugural Inuit Technology Forum held March 14-16 in Iqaluit, industry leaders and government representatives met to advance innovative solutions for the North. The event was organized by Qikiqtaaluk Business Development Corporation (QBDC) with funding from Indigenous Services Canada.
“The overarching premise was to both bring awareness collectively to the initiatives happening in the various Inuit regions across the country and for participants to gain insight from the presenters here in Iqaluit,” said QBDC director of project management Sheldon Nimchuk.
The week began with lighting of the qulliq, the traditional oil lamps that are just one example in the long history of Inuit innovation. Presentations over the following days covered everything from clean energy and internet connectivity to cybersecurity, fisheries research and groundbreaking local artists.
Following last summer’s agreement with Hydro-Québec to develop green energy across Nunavik, Tarquti Energy’s Joë Lance discussed the region’s emerging solar and wind projects. Presenters also highlighted windfarm initiatives in other Inuit regions and the potential for small nuclear reactors in energy generation.
Addressing both the region’s housing shortage and the need to move away from diesel energy dependency, ArchTech founder Alex Cook discussed building a net-zero energy home in Baker Lake, Nunavut, while SolarLab CEO Anders Smith came from Denmark to explain his company’s solar facades that make buildings energy producing.
“There are a lot of initiatives taking root,” Nimchuck told the Nation. “Challenges with legislation are slowly being addressed. Clean energy and enhanced connectivity set the stage for all the areas technology may play a role in business opportunities.”
Nimchuck is hopeful that Galaxy Broadband’s $67-million deal with low-orbit satellite provider OneWeb in February will be the “game changer” that local businesses have been waiting for. Focusing on businesses, organizations and governments in Nunavut, the development should significantly improve online latency in applications such as virtual meetings.
Madeleine Redfern, the chief operating officer of CanArctic Inuit Networks and the former mayor of Iqaluit, was pleased to see government representatives from the Canadian Space Agency, CSIS and Policy Horizons that hadn’t previously come to the North. She wants them to understand the keen interest that Inuit need to fully participate in new opportunities.
“Our leaders have been stating for some time, nothing about us without us,” said Redfern. “With the funding Canada has announced in the energy sector, the Northern Corridor development and telecommunications, there needs to be inclusive discussion and participation.”
Redfern emphasized strategic investments to address the infrastructure needs as many of these technologies are interrelated, and because there are extensive lead times in potential airport, deep seaport and telecommunications projects.
“We have limited resources, so these investments need to be smart,” Redfern asserted. “There’s an interest in Indigenous communities to participate in building, owning and managing that infrastructure. There’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to get these investments done right.”
Redfern was fascinated by an Inuit delegation from Cambridge Bay which leverages technological expertise to monitor vessels according to their unique community and cultural needs. As companies increasingly look toward the Arctic, a panel by Canada’s Ocean Supercluster explained emerging collaborative projects between industry, research, not-for-profits and government.
While local opportunities will come from the Nasittuq Corporation being awarded the NORAD air defence system contract last year, Redfern said Canada has fallen behind Arctic neighbours in infrastructure investment, which she noted has ripple effects in the national economy and security.
The forum demonstrated that talent in Nunavut can handle this growing demand, showcasing local success stories like Iqaluit-based Arctic UAV. With cutting-edge technology, the all-Inuit company’s drones equipped with specialized cameras produce site surveys, detailed mapping and 3D replicas of communities.
“As a small Indigenous tech company, we can certainly provide a world-class service,” said Arctic UAV founder Kirt Ejesiak. “We understand the landscape and some of the challenges. The tech is only one part – the critical piece is having local folks delivering these services, using community support and local knowledge.”
Ejesiak’s drone pilot team travels long distances in small vessels, navigating harsh conditions and the occasional polar bear to achieve highly detailed images. They’ve expanded into underwater imaging and robotics testing and are currently working on a language application that would provide real-time translation into “natural spoken” Inuktitut.
“It’s certainly an exciting time with a new focus on the North and Inuit want to be part of those discussions,” Ejesiak said. “Often, we look at these conferences with skepticism; grand plans drafted in some boardroom far removed from where we live. This tech forum was refreshingly forward-thinking.”
However, Ejesiak sees a fundamental flaw with southern models that might subsidize 50% or 75% of accepted projects. With such significant gaps in capacity, it’s prohibitively difficult to come up with even 25%. Ejesiak suggests funding certain projects completely, at least in the “proof of concept” stage.
“Development is a catch-22,” asserted Ejesiak. “Show us the project that has legs and okay, but you have to get to that stage. I’d like to see ‘here’s 100%, try for a year,’ and if there’s success let’s highlight that, and get other partners to make it a much larger project.”
On the forum’s final day, local artists shared how the internet enables them to connect with the world. Artist Mathew Nuqingaq discussed finding new revenue streams during the pandemic while Inuk TikTok star Shina Novalinga recounted bringing a spotlight on her culture.
Organizers invited Grade 10 students for a youth panel. With a young population and growing opportunity to choose one’s destiny, Ejesiak advised aspiring entrepreneurs “to jump in with both feet.”
“There’s certainly more resources now than when I started,” said Ejesiak. “I would encourage folks to reach out to organizations that are there to offer support and people like us who have gone through fighting in those trenches to make this business work. You won’t know unless you try – go for it.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter