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The double-edged sword of technology economic development for Arctic Indigenous Peoples

June 27, 2019


Sason Hayashi

The use of technology economic development in the Arctic region is a double-edged sword for the Indigenous people who inhabit the area. The access to the high speed internet provides multiple opportunities and economic development that will positively impact the local community. Local hospitals in the past were unable to send digital images due to the lack of high speed internet access from x-rays to trauma one hospitals in nearby big cites. Therefore, the staff sent patients by helicopter to more advanced facilities. This solution was costly for the government and local municipalities to continue to practice. However, the argument begins with local people having access to high speed internet. Once this access has been established, foreign companies wanting to develop seaports will lead to resource extraction, and increase in shipping.  The remoteness of the Arctic region requires that each port serve multiple functions: easing local and international trade, safety and security, navigation and emergency services to provide resources to the growing foreign business and the security that the military provides. This paper attempts to argue that the advent of high speed internet access through multiple nation states will bring further economic development in the Arctic region and soon other foreign enterprise will follow. Indigenous peoples need to be included in the dialog with governments and foreign companies alike. This solution will ensure the economic viability of Indigenous peoples in the region and also prevent a top-down approach or colonial branding for the Indigenous people of the Arctic region.


The Arctic submarine cable project was originally developed by the Toronto based company Arctic-Fibre, and is owned by Quitillion in Fairbanks, Alaska.  In 2018, the former CEO Elizabeth Pierce was charged with multi-million dollar fraudulent investment practices by forging signatures and falsifying two New York based investment firms over two years.  In the northern territory of Alaska, cities such as Nome, Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright, Utqiagvik and Prudhoe, which routed the Terristrial line to Fairbanks, Alaska, now have high speed internet access in some places for the first time. The Arctic submarine cables will eventually connect Tokyo, Japan to London, United Kingdom via the Arctic Ocean. The construction will be in three phases and the first phase in Northern Alaska is well on its way.  Phase two of the project will connect Tokyo, Japan to Nome, Alaska and phase three will traverse the northern territory of Canada connecting cities before snaking around Greenland and connecting to London, United Kingdom.  The rural towns that dot along side the submarine cable lines along the northern territory of Alaska and Canada will connect to the internet in a few years. This technology will supply many advantages to commerce, structural development and resource exploration by states and private companies in the Arctic region.

Russia is developing a submarine cable line through the Arctic Ocean. Russia’s Polarnet is partnering with the trans-arctic fiber Arctic cable system ROTKAS to develop Russia’s Arctic Region communities and security infrastructure.  The submarine cable being constructed on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and this system will connect the United Kingdom with Toko via Murmansk, Anadyr and Vladivostok.

China is developing its Huawei Marine cable network by establishing investment and infrastructure development with Greenland. Huawei has been under a magnifying glass and was scrutinized by the United States government. The United States government is warning other states that they are putting themselves at risk if they deal with Huawei for submarine cable and telecommunications infrastructure development. Huawei was accused of leaving a so called backdoor in the tech industry as a way for the government to have access to information and data. The United Kingdom has followed suit with the United States. However, this endeavor is quite expensive and not all nations have the financial capability to cut ties and go their separate ways with infrastructure development through established lines of credit.

The Arctic as a region is developing faster than perhaps the rest of the world is aware of at the moment. Indigenous communities are adapting to the environmental challenges that the warming of the ice has caused. In Nome, Alaska Indigenous people parked their trucks in a garage from October to July. Traversing the ice was the only way to get around, for there are no roads available most of the year. Today, locals report using their vehicles to get around town well after Christmas. In Nunavut, Canada, the words and terms used to describe climate change have a distinctly different meaning for the local culture and language. Translating the ideas and words from English to Inuktitut has a very different climate policy and political ramifications within the Inuit society.  Notions of resilience, adaptation, and climate change itself mean something fundamentally different from the ideas meant to be shared in western culture verses how the local cultures in the Arctic understand climate change. In Inuktitut, in regards to environmental phenomena (climate change) over which humans have no control, both adaptation and resilience come to be seen as appropriate and familiar to the Inuit people as ways to identify changing climate conditions. The Inuit culture comes into play where people react with the changing conditions (climate change) by calling on practices of patience, observation, creativity, forbearance and discretion. If the ideas of climate change are understood as unethical harm then the approach in the Inuit culture would be justice, rationality and healing would be activated. The western understanding and shared knowledge of climate change is political in nature and when this knowledge is shared with the people who reside in the Arctic region and who translate these ideas to the local languages, the ideas can be widely misinterpreted and lost with in the local context of the Arctic region. This is the first of many challenges when communicating the shared knowledge of climate change. How will the idea of high speed internet and foreign technology and resource development be understood and adapted in the Arctic region by the local people? Environmental changes are not the only potential calamity that Indigenous people will face. The communities that live along the Arctic Ocean in Northern Alaska now have access to high speed internet and soon Canadian Northern Territories, Russian communities the Nenets, Khanty, Evek, Greenland, and the Scandinavian Countries will all soon have access. The policies need to reflect the rapid change in infrastructure development. Soon, oil and gas companies, as well as deep water mining companies, will be looking to explore potential untapped resources for energy development. The submarine cable and access to the World Wide Web is just the beginning.

Existing Policy

The companies that own the submarine cable operations and development in the region work to develop relationships with the Indigenous groups in the area affected by the construction:

“There are a number of opportunities for the public to provide input in the National environmental policy Act NEPA process associated with the Bureau of ocean energy Management BOEM’s plan review. For example, stakeholders can provide comments during comment periods and participate in public meetings. There is also the opportunity to observe Task Force meetings held to discuss the specifics of the proposed project.”

In Canada, the provincial government and federal government are working with local Nunavik communities to secure funding for the area that will be allocated for infrastructure development in the northern Canadian territories. Their argument is such that they have not benefited from Canada’s development to the cost associated with the remoteness of the location and lack of technological development needed to successfully sustain projects in Canada’s northern Territories:

“A joint federal-provincial investment of $125.2 million in high-speed Internet will make the Kativik Regional Government’s plan for subsea fibre a reality. The Government of Canada, through the Connect to Innovate program, and the Government of Quebec, through the Ministry of economy, science and innovation, which mandated the Société du Plan Nord to carry out this project, will each invest $62.6 million in the project. The Kativik Regional Government will contribute $500,000.”

Policy Options

The Arctic Council could provide a framework for emerging technology and resource development and provide a supportive voice for Indigenous peoples not just as a non-governmental organization but as an equal partner for concerns in the Arctic region. A viable policy option moving forward would be a flexible and adaptive Arctic Council, which according to Simcock that the Arctic Council has undergone three updates since the inception in 1996 as an international governing body for issues and concerns in the Arctic region. The Arctic Council has struggled in the past on how to provide funding for the Indigenous groups to attend meetings, task force, working groups and Workshops in the past. Private companies engaging with local Indigenous peoples should provide a way for the people to benefit and prosper alongside the businesses who seek to explore the region for resource development.


  • Indigenous groups in the Arctic Region be recognized as legitimate members of the Arctic Council.
  • Indigenous groups work alongside states in engaging foreign vendors for commerce and development in the region.



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