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Session: Narratives & temporalities of infrastructure

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Together with Giuseppe Amatulli (Carlton University), I am organizing the session “Narratives and Temporalities of Infrastructure: The Canadian Experience” at the meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) & the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA). The conference takes place from November 15-19, 2023 in Toronto, Canada.

The session was highlighted in AAA’s and CASCA’s official announcement of the conference program.

Snippet of AAA’s & CASCA’s announcement of the program of the 2023 meeting.

Paper: Tourism & transport infrastructures in the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”

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Budka, P. (2023). Tourism and transport infrastructures in the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. Paper at International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF) 16th Congress, Brno, Czech Republic: Masaryk University, June 7-10.

Abstract

This paper explores how tourism and transport infrastructures are entangled in the town of Churchill in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Situated at the junction of the boreal forest, the Arctic tundra, and the Hudson Bay, the community of 870 people has become known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. While early bear watching projects in Churchill already started in the 1970s, tourism really exploded when polar bears became worldwide symbols of global warming and climate change at the end of the 20th century.

This tremendous growth in tourism was mainly enabled by the transport infrastructure of a town which has no road connection. The Hudson Bay Railway, which was originally built to ship grain from Canada’s prairie provinces to the seaport of Churchill, now also brings tourists and their supplies. The same goes for Churchill’s airport, which was constructed for military purposes during the Second World War and now serves as transportation hub for tourists, tour operators, and their cargo.

By discussing ethnographic findings, this paper focuses on the role of tourism, as a key economic driver, and its connection to transport infrastructures in sustaining and transforming the town of Churchill. In doing so, it also critically reflects upon the very notion of sustainability (transformation). This study is one of several case studies in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into the affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale.

Professional photographers during bear season in Churchill, MB, Canada. (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Paper: Digital & transport infrastructures in remote Canada

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Budka, P. (2023). Digital and transport infrastructures in remote Canada: Notes on ownership and control. Paper at InfraNorth Workshop “Ethnographies of Infrastructure”, Vienna, Austria: University of Vienna, May 22.

Abstract

Infrastructures are at the core of many social transformations, sociopolitical developments, and creative processes of innovation. They have become key indicators and signs of economic development, technological advancement, and modernization. Particularly in small and remote communities, infrastructures are often associated with economic growth, socio-economic well-being, and therefore communal sustainability.

This paper looks into the role of digital and transport infrastructures in remote communities in Canada by discussing questions of infrastructural ownership and control. In doing so, it draws on completed ethnographic fieldwork on the development and appropriation of digital infrastructures in Northwestern Ontario as well as on ongoing fieldwork in Northern Manitoba on the affordances of transport infrastructures in relation to sustaining communities; the latter being conducted within the ERC project InfraNorth.

Both cases show that the creation of social relationships and organizational partnerships are key for the planning, developing, building, continuing, and maintaining of infrastructures. At least from an ethnographic and anthropological perspective, infrastructure is therefore much more than just an operational system of technological objects.

Map of broadband internet connectivity in Sandy Lake First Nation, ON, Canada. (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Paper: Relational infrastructures

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Budka, P. (2023). Relational infrastructures: Transportation and sustainability in the Subarctic town of Churchill, Canada. Paper at Biennial Conference of the Finnish Anthropological Society, Rovaniemi, Finland: Arctic Centre, 21-23 March.

Abstract

This paper explores how transport infrastructures are interconnected and entangled in the Subarctic town of Churchill, Canada. In doing so, it looks into the creation and maintenance of these infrastructures as well as into the role that social, political, and economic relations play here. It furthermore examines how such infrastructural entanglements contribute to the sustainability of the town. Churchill is one of several field sites in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into the affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale through an anthropological lens.

Churchill, a town of 870 people, is unique in terms of transport infrastructure. The town, which is not accessible via roads, is home to Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean. This is the only harbor in the American (Sub)Arctic with a direct link to the North American railway system. In addition, Churchill has a relatively big airport, which was originally built by the military and is now supporting in particular the growing tourism industry. The community of Churchill only exists because of these infrastructures and it has been changing together with them.

By discussing ethnographic and historical findings, this paper focuses on how this infrastructural entanglement becomes particularly visible in times of infrastructural breakdown and failure. When in 2017 a flooding washed-out the railway tracks and Churchill was without train connection for 18 months, the town and its inhabitants had to rely on air transportation and on a network of winter trails to transport goods and supplies. This has had severe consequences for this remote Subarctic town.

Mural in the Town of Churchill created for the Seawalls Churchill project in 2017; in the back the Port of Churchill, MB, Canada. (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Blog Post: “Have you seen a polar bear?”

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Budka, P. (2023). “Have you seen a polar bear?” – Transportation during “bear season” in Churchill, Manitoba. InfraNorth – Building Arctic Futures: Transport Infrastructures and Sustainable Northern Communities Blog, 28 February.

Tourism is big in Churchill, a town of 870 people situated at the junction of the boreal forest, the Subarctic tundra, and the Hudson Bay in Northern Manitoba, Canada. And tourism is closely entangled with transport infrastructures, such as roads, trails, railway, and airport. Through these infrastructures, tourists are able to reach the town and move around in the community and the nearby area. Tourism operators use these infrastructures to move not only people, but also supplies, equipment, and fuel.

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“Welcome to Churchill” sign at Churchill Airport, MB, Canada. (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Paper: Sustainability transformation & transport infrastructures in Northern Manitoba, Canada

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Budka, P. (2023). Sustainability transformation and transport infrastructures in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Paper at Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW2023), Vienna, Austria: University of Vienna, 17-24 February.

Abstract

This paper explores from an anthropological perspective how infrastructural entanglements relate to sustainability transformation of/in the town of Churchill in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Situated at the junction of the boreal forest, the Arctic tundra, and the Hudson Bay, the community of 870 people has become well-known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. But Churchill is also unique in terms of transport infrastructures. Whereas the town is not accessible via roads, it is home of Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean. This port is the only harbor in the American (Sub)Arctic with a direct link to the North American railway system. And due to former military presence, the town also has a relatively big airport, which has become key for the growing tourism industry.

Churchill only exists because of these transport infrastructures and it has been changing together with this built environment. Only recently and in the light of geopolitical developments, the federal and the provincial governments agreed to invest up to CA$ 147 million to upgrade the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill. By discussing ethnographic findings, this paper focuses on the role of transport infrastructures in sustaining and transforming the community. At the same time, it critically reflects upon the very notion of sustainability (transformation) from an anthropological and cross-cultural angle. This study is one of several case studies in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into the affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale.

The Town of Churchill, MB, Canada, from a helicopter; in the back the Port of Churchill. (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Paper: Infrastructural sustainability?

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I did prepare the paper “Infrastructural sustainability?” for the Vienna Anthropology Days (VANDA) 2022 and the session “Infrastructure and the Built Environment in the Anthropocene“, but was not able to present it because of sickness. Find the abstract below and the full paper as soon as the preprint is ready.

Budka, P. (2022). Infrastructural sustainability? The case of a town in northern Manitoba, Canada [Unpublished manuscript]. Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna.

Abstract

This paper explores how the built environment and in particular infrastructural entanglements contribute to the sustainability of the town of Churchill in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Situated at the junction of the boreal forest, the Arctic tundra, and the Hudson Bay, the town of 870 residents has become well-known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”.

But Churchill is also unique in terms of transport infrastructures. Whereas the town is not accessible via roads, it is home of Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean. This port is the only seaport in the American (Sub)Arctic with a direct link to the North American railway network. And due to former military presence, the town also has a relatively big airport, which now supports the growing tourism industry.

The community of Churchill only exists because of these transport infrastructures and it has been changing together with this built environment. By discussing ethnographic findings, the paper focuses on the failures, such as an 18-month train outage after the flooding of railway tracks in 2017, and the promises, such as the renovation of port and railway between 2021 and 2023 under new ownership, of transport infrastructures in sustaining the community.

Churchill is one of several field sites in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into the affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale through an anthropological lens.

Port of Churchill, MB, Canada. (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Paper: The failures & promises of transport infrastructure in a remote Canadian town

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Budka, P. (2022). The failures and promises of transport infrastructure in a remote Canadian town. Paper at 17th Biennial Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), Belfast, UK: Queen’s University Belfast, 26-29 July.

Abstract

This paper explores changes in the transport infrastructure of the remote town of Churchill in northern Manitoba, Canada. The town of about 900 residents is located on the 58th parallel north at the Hudson Bay and has become known as the “polar bear capital of the world”.

Churchill is unique in terms of transportation. Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean is located there. And this port is the only port in the American (Sub)Arctic with a direct link to the North American railway network. The town, which is inaccessible via roads, only exists because of these transport infrastructures.

In 2017, when a flood washed out railway tracks, this infrastructural entanglement once again became apparent. Suddenly, Churchill was without overland access and life changed drastically. Food and other items had to be flown in at high costs and residents utilized snowmobile trails to reduce transportation costs.

The port had to close, people lost their jobs and families left. The town negotiated with the province, the state and the company which owned the railway to get the tracks fixed. After 18 months, they were finally repaired. In 2021, however, the port again was closed for grain shipping due to renovations.

By discussing results of a first ethnographic field trip to Churchill, this paper focuses on the failures and promises of transport infrastructures. Churchill is one of several field sites in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale through an anthropological lens.

Interview: Erkundungen von Kanadas nördlichen Transportinfrastrukturen

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In May 2022, I did an interview with the Austrian Polar Research Institute (APRI) about my fieldwork on transport infrastructures in Northern Manitoba, Canada, within the ERC project InfraNorth.

Interview for Austrian Polar Research Institute. (2022). “Erkundungen von Kanadas nördlichen Transportinfrastrukturen“.
Interview in English (translated by APRI)

Austrian Polar Research Institute. (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Blog Post: A train ride to Hudson Bay

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Budka, P. (2022). A train ride to Hudson Bay. InfraNorth – Building Arctic Futures: Transport Infrastructures and Sustainable Northern Communities Blog, 25 April.

I wake up because a bright light is shining directly in my face. For a second, I am not sure where I am. Then I remember: I am in Canada, in the province of Manitoba, on the train from the capital Winnipeg to the small northern town of Churchill at the Hudson Bay. I am in my cabin, in the sleeping car with the window blinds open so I can see the subarctic night sky. The train must have stopped at one of the small places along its way. I look at the clock, it’s 2:30 a.m. I am 40 hours on the train and there are only about eight hours to go.

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Churchill train station, MB, Canada. (Photo by Philipp Budka)

Blog Post: Reflections on the InfraNorth workshop “The Global Economics & Geopolitics of Arctic Transport Infrastructures”

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Budka, P., & Povoroznyuk, O. (2021). Reflections on the InfraNorth workshop “The Global Economics and Geopolitics of Arctic Transport Infrastructures”. InfraNorth – Building Arctic Futures: Transport Infrastructures and Sustainable Northern Communities Blog, 30 Nov.

On September 23 and 24, 2021, the InfraNorth project organized the workshop “The Global Economics and Geopolitics of Arctic Transport Infrastructures” at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Vienna.

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Paper: Anthropological notes on digital & transport infrastructures in remote communities

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Budka, P. (2021). Anthropological notes on digital and transport infrastructures in remote communities. Paper at Anthropology of Technology Conference, Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University, 4-5 November.

Abstract

This paper explores the role of digital and transport infrastructures, as operational systems of technological objects (Larkin, 2013), in remote communities in Canada. In doing so, it considers anthropological insights into the relationship between “the technical”, “the infrastructural” and “the sociocultural”.

The development and maintenance of technological infrastructures, for instance, also include the creation of social relations and organisational partnerships. And a deeper understanding of related processes of socio-technical change and continuity requires anthropologically informed contextualisation and ethnographic engagement.

This paper discusses aspects of the similarities and differences of digital and transport infrastructures by building on fieldwork on the development and use of digital infrastructures and related services in remote First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario and by including preparatory work for a project on the affordances of transport infrastructures in the Canadian North.

MyKnet.org: Traces of digital decoloniality in an indigenous web-based environment

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This blog post is a shorter version of a paper presented at the Engaging with Web Archives (EWA20) conference in September 2020 (Book of Abstracts).
Budka, P. (2020). MyKnet.org: Traces of digital decoloniality in an indigenous web-based environment. Paper at Engaging with Web Archives (EWA20): “Opportunities, Challenges and Potentialities”, Online (hosted by Maynooth University), 21-22 September.

This blog post builds on selected results of an anthropological project that explored various indigenous engagements with digital media, technologies and infrastructures in Northwestern Ontario, Canada (e.g., Budka, 2015, 2019; Budka et al. 2009). The project was conducted in cooperation with the First Nations internet organization Keewaytinook Okimakanak Kuh-ke-nah Network (KO-KNET).

In this post I briefly reflect upon traces of “digital decoloniality”, a concept borrowed from Alexandra Deem (2019), by exploring selected aspects of the sociotechnical history of KO-KNET’s web-based environment MyKnet.org and by discussing facets of a MyKnet.org user’s digital biography.

KO-KNET & MyKnet.org

KO-KNET Network, 2010, courtesy of KO-KNET

In 1994, the tribal council Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO) established the Kuh-ke-nah Network (KO-KNET) to connect Canada’s indigenous people in Northwestern Ontario’s remote communities through and to the internet. At that time, a local telecommunication infrastructure was almost non-existent. KO-KNET started with a simple bulletin board system that developed into a community-controlled ICT infrastructure, which today includes landline and satellite broadband internet as well as internet-based mobile phone communication (e.g. Fiser & Clement, 2012).

Together with local, regional and national partners, KO-KNET developed different services: from e-health and an internet high school to different remote training programs. The most mundane of those services was the digital environment MyKnet.org, which enabled First Nations people to create personal homepages within a cost- and commercial-free space on the web.

MyKnet.org was set up in 1998 exclusively for the First Nations people of Northwestern Ontario. By the early 2000s, a wide set of actors across Northwestern Ontario, a region with an overall indigenous population of about 45,000, had found a new home on this web-based platform. During its heyday, MyKnet.org had more than 30,000 registered user accounts and about 25,000 active homepages.

With the advent and rise of commercial social media platforms, such as Facebook, user numbers began to drop. To reduce administrative and technical costs, KO-KNET decided to switch to WordPress as hosting platform in 2014. Since this required users to set up new websites, numbers continued to fall. In early 2019, there were only 2,900 homepages left and MyKnet.org was shut down a couple of months later.

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Seminar: Digital Technologies as Material Culture 2020

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In this MA seminar at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna, we explore digital media technologies from an anthropological/ethnographic perspective in the context of material culture.
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This course gives an overview about material culture as a conceptual and practical approach to understand digital technologies. In doing so, it focuses on the everyday incorporation and utilization of digital technologies.

Mobile networked digital media technologies, such as smart phones, as well as social media platforms and services, such as Facebook or Instagram, have become important (visual) communication and (re)presentation tools. For social and cultural anthropology it is of particular interest how these digital devices and technologies are integrated and embedded into everyday life, by considering changing sociocultural, political and economic contexts. This course focuses in particular on the material aspects of digital technologies and how they are utilized on a day-to-day basis. Questions about the relevance of a material culture approach for (the understanding of) technology appropriation – on a theoretical and practical level – as well as questions about (culturally) different usage practices are discussed. How does the understanding and conceptualization of digital technology as material culture contribute to the exploration and analyses of contemporary and emerging sociocultural practices and processes in increasingly digital societies?

By working on different online case studies, students get a comparative overview about material culture in a digital context.

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Presentation: MyKnet.org: The cultural history & social life of an indigenous web-based environment

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Budka, P. (2019). MyKnet.org: The cultural history and social life of an indigenous web-based environment. Paper at “The Web That Was: Archives, Traces, Reflections” Conference (RESAW19), Amsterdam, Netherlands: University of Amsterdam, 21 June. Presentation (PDF)

Ethnographic Vignette

In the summer of 2006, during my first field trip to Northwestern Ontario, I visited the Frenchman’s Head community of Lac Seul First Nation which is one of the region’s few non-remote indigenous communities that can be reached by car and by boat. In the Band Office, the community’s largest administrative building, I was introduced to 16 year old Candice, a well known MyKnet.org user. She told me that she did set up her first MyKnet.org page a couple of years ago to stay in touch with friends and family and to let people know about her life. To communicate with friends and family members, she added a c-box to her homepage where people could leave messages.

As I found out later, almost everyone in the Band Office had a MyKnet.org homepage. Even though some didn’t know how to work with their websites. They needed the help of young, web-savvy colleagues, friends and family members. Candice introduced me to an older lady who told me that she had to register for a new MyKnet.org page only two weeks ago because her original page was registered under her now divorced husband’s name. And since she didn’t want to be constantly reminded of this, she needed a new homepage. KO-KNET, the First Nations internet organization that has been managing the MyKnet.org homepage service, only approves registrations with real, locally known, First Nation names that are then displayed in the URL of the page.

Candice helped her setting up the page, finding and applying the right layout and updating the content. As she told me later, she was regularly reminding other employees at the office to keep their respective homepages up to date. She also told me that she has started to use other, commercial website providers, such as Piczo (2002-2012). They were easier to use than MyKnet.org and provided more web space and technical features and possibilities.

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