More young Nunavummiut learn computer programming skills despite northern internet challenges

Every Tuesday after school, a group of Iqaluit youth get together to build computer skills and enjoy a common hobby: video games.

Though some are not even 10 years old, they already have sharp skills in the art of computer programming that they’re learning through an organization called Pinnguaq, which means “to play” in Inuktitut.

The non-profit organization offers workshops to young people and adults to introduce them to the world of technology. They learn to design video games, understand computer coding, and make three-dimensional prints.

It started over a decade ago as a non-Inuit founded organization in Nunavut with an aim to improve access to technology to through games. It now operates in a few cities across Canada.

Charlotte says she hopes ‘one day, when I am still living here, we will have access to unlimited internet connectivity.’ (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Charlotte, who is nine years old, said she joined partly because she’s interested in technology and science. (CBC is withholding children’s last names in this story to protect their privacy.)

“When I came here, it felt like me,” she said, adding she also wants to break into a field that traditionally has seen less women — science.

“I just want to make a difference one day. Because like, not lots of girls are scientists. So I want to be a scientist when I grow up,” she said.

For Jacob, 13, who writes stories, game programming is a creative outlet. He gets to give commands to the characters and dictate what they do through coding.

Jacob is amoung the youth in Iqaluit learning computer skills through gaming with Pinnguaq, an organization that offers computer workshops to young people and adults to introduce them to the world of technology. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

“I like to write in my room sometimes … and I want to put them [the stories] out in a way. So I like to do it in coding,” Jacob said.

The hobby is a difficult passion to nurture in Nunavut, where internet is pricey and sometimes unreliable.

Slow and expensive connectivity in the North

Of the provinces and territories in the country, Nunavut is the only one that relies entirely on a satellite Iinternet network, which poses many challenges in inclement weather conditions.

In 2018, Internet connectivity in Nunavut was about eight times slower than the Canadian average, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). In addition, no service provider offers unlimited internet plans and their prices are very high.

A household in Iqaluit can expect to pay about $100 for 150 gigabytes per month. In a report released in 2020, the Inuit organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), concluded that it would cost a single Nunavut Inuit household at least $7,000 in annual fees to access the level of data use in the average Canadian household.

James Eetoolook in a file photo from 2020. Internet in Nunavut is ‘quite a bit slower than southern standards,’ he says. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

“The problem with the internet in the North — [it’s] very, very slow, quite a bit slower than southern standards,” said James Eetoolook, NTI vice president.

He said NTI works to make sure Inuit get the same access to reliable, fast and expandable internet capacity as other Canadians.

“However, with one fifth of Canada’s landmass, Nunavut poses a very daunting challenge to meet the new threshold internet speed capacity set by the Canadian Radio Television and Communication Commission,” he said.

At home, both Jacob and Charlotte say their families have access to a computer and internet, but it’s limited.

“My parents say it’s expensive because we are up in the North,” Charlotte said.

Beyond the slow internet, the world of technology is also just out of reach for some Nunavummiut — many households in the territory don’t have a computer at home.

Restored post-secondary program

Young people considering a career in computer science have also faced challenges getting into tech due to the lack of available post-secondary training in the field.

Nunavut Arctic College offered a computer systems technician diploma program from 2007 to 2017, Margaret Sullivan, manager of social work programs at Nunavut Arctic College, told Radio-Canada over email.

However, the program stopped due to low application numbers and the need for curriculum revisions. Sullivan said the two-year diploma program was delivered to five cohorts, and during that time, the students could graduate with a certificate (after one year) or a diploma (after two years).

Of the provinces and territories in the country, Nunavut is the only one that relies entirely on a satellite Internet network, which poses many challenges in inclement weather conditions. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

In all, the program produced 25 graduates. 

The college is now preparing a revamped version of the program to train computer systems maintenance and repair technicians and is launching that sometime in 2022, the spokesperson said.

The college’s senior IT strategic advisor, Jennifer Lane, says the new version will be more in line with today’s technology scene. She said it’s a “generalist program,” and that it touches on networking, programming, hardware and security.

“It provides the students the base foundations to operate in any one of those areas at an entry level,” Lane said.

A ‘great opportunity’

Pinnguaq instructor Ben Westwell says having this college program will be a “huge benefit” for Nunavummiut.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for people looking to get into this field,” Westwell said.

Ben Westwell is responsible for the organization’s workshops in Iqaluit and an instructor. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Growing up, he felt there haven’t been enough opportunities for people to get into computer and technology studies.

“Without this program, we don’t really have anything in-territory,” Westwell said.

He hopes more Nunavummiut will take an interest in computer science programs and not feel intimidated, in part because many jobs in all fields require a level of computer literacy.

For now, Charlotte holds onto hope that she’ll eventually see improvements to internet in Iqaluit.

“I hope one day, when I am still living here,” she said, “we will have access to unlimited internet connectivity.”

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