Development Communication in the Canadian North: A University Course Project on First Nations’ Media
Friday, 15 February 2013, 03:37 PM
By: Arne Hintz
In winter 2012, 12 students from McGill University in Montreal conducted research on communication projects by Canadian First Nations communities. As part of a combined undergraduate and graduate seminar on ‘Communications and Development’ at McGill’s Department of Art History and Communication Studies, they interviewed founders and leaders of projects that aim at enhancing access to information and knowledge, preserving local cultures, and creating grassroots-based communication infrastructure.
The course had provided the students with an overview of development communication theory and practice, paradigms such as ‘communication for social change’ (CFSC) and ‘information and communication technologies for development’ (ICT4D), trends in international media development, and small-scale self-organised media practices such as community radio and community informatics. Students thus approached the First Nations’ projects with an interest in how these would relate to academic knowledge and theoretical concepts, and with practical concerns such as sustainability and participation. Looking at their own environment instead of (or rather, in addition to) the classic examples of development communication (usually situated in the Global South) not only offered a more direct experience with the issues discussed in the course. It also provided awareness of the need for development-oriented communication closer to home, and of innovative communication project that can serve as models for initiatives elsewhere.
The First Mile project facilitated the necessary contacts with the various local organizations, and both Rob McMahon (First Mile, Simon Fraser University) and Darlene Thomson (Nunavut E-Association) gave guest lectures in the course and discussed relevant issues with the students. Six projects were studied, ranging from classic community media to a cutting-edge social media platform, and from language preservation to technological literacy:
- MyKnet is an online social networking site that was created in 1998 by the Keewaytinook Okimakanak Council in Northern Ontario, to connect people within and between remote First Nation communities by providing an online environment to share stories and pictures.
- A Different Spin is a video production project that trains youth and local residents to film and produce videos in various First Nation communities across Northern British Columbia.
- Adoption of Technology for Economic Change utilizes interactive learning technologies to bring youth together with Elder community members to foster community economic development and cultural preservation, integrating technological know-how with an Indigenous worldview.
- Similarly, the Ojibway Language App acts as a bridge between technology and culture by providing a digital lexicon of Ojibway terms and phrases. Developed initially for personal use, the application has grown into a larger business endeavour. **Note: this article was not posted, as there is already a Community Story about the Ojibway Language App on the First Mile site **
- All the Voices was created by Ryakuga Grassroots Communications in Newfoundland and Labrador as a set of grassroots participatory community media, educating community members in media production.
- Good Learning Anywhere is a literacy project created by the Sioux Hudson Literacy Council, providing 850 participants with online studying and learning facilities.
The interviews conducted by the students unveiled a number of common goals and characteristics across several of the projects, such as creating access and empowerment, bringing the community together to share stories, creating an interactive dialogue instead of a one-way flow of information, and preserving as well as celebrating local cultures. Key challenges included funding and sustainability.
The funding issue is certainly familiar in the development context where projects often adapt to donor interests, rather than community needs, and where the end of funding often leads to the end of the project. The conclusions from the student projects also relate to other aspects of development communication theory and practice, such as the important role of self-organization, and the tension between tradition and modernity. What is at stake, for example, when a local initiative uses hegemonic technology such as smart phones and tablet PCs to distribute traditional knowledge within First Nations communities? How do dynamics of ‘westernization’ and ‘modernization’ play out, are countered, or used productively? How do business-led initiatives interact with classic public or community-run projects?
Most importantly, the interviews demonstrate a focus on a form of development that emphasizes a grassroots-oriented and community-based approach of empowerment and aims at giving people the opportunity to create their own media, access their own culture, and tell their own stories, in their own ways.