Lindsay’s Arctic-inspired tech entrepreneur aims to triple size in coming months
It has been three years since Ryan Oliver left Pangnirtung on the east side of Baffin Island, where summer temperatures range from five to 15 degrees Celsius and winter can be -50 Celsius with wind chill.
Oliver had lived in this Nunavut village of 1,400 people for nine years. But given the costs of doing business in the north he thought it was time to bring his family — and his entrepreneurial idea — home to Lindsay.
“When I lived there (in Pangnirtung), I returned for holidays but as my kids aged it became completely unaffordable to travel — close to $10,000 per trip for the entire family — and ultimately helped with the decision to move back here,” says Oliver.
Oliver’s company is ‘Pinnguaq,’ just recently awarded ‘best social enterprise’ in the nation from Startup Canada. The name means “play” in Inuktitut, and part of his work was producing games that were inspired by Inuit mythology.
As well, his company created apps that teach traditional Inuktitut and Gwich’in songs. While there, he also taught coding to kids as young as five.
Pinnguaq is based in Lindsay, Nunavut, and B.C., and is a not for profit technology start-up with the goal of embracing technology and tech education as a means of sharing stories, language and culture from the Arctic with the rest of the world.
Right now, Oliver has an office of four in downtown Lindsay on William Street South and hopes to grow that to 12 in the next few months. He also has two employees in Nunavut and three in Burnaby, B.C.
“We’re creating jobs here and now we’re beginning to work with local organizations to share our product and our approach,” he tells The Lindsay Advocate.
The company has established a relationship with the Kawartha Art Gallery to bring their ‘Art Alive’ program to the Lindsay gallery and to Lindsay school kids, a celebration of art in the interactive medium.
“We’ve recently sponsored the art gallery to provide an award for the best work in technology-based art, as well as one for Indigenous artists,” says Oliver, and they’re working with Kawartha Lakes Arts Council to help modernize their social media presence.
They have also been implementing “Art Alive” in the Lindsay school system (through the gallery) for the past two years,” says Oliver.
Oliver has worked with Victoria County Career Services (VCCS) to hire locally. However, Pinnguaq’s entire client base is outside of the Lindsay area.
While Pinnguaq works primarily in Nunavut and with clients from Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, they are aiming instead of “target giving” back to Lindsay to help build community here.
Life in Pangnirtung
Oliver lived in Pangnirtung for all but one year of the nine years he lived in Nunavut, with one year in the capital, Iqaluit.
He and his wife went to Nunavut after hearing about it regularly from a friend who had moved there a year previous to take a teaching position.
“I knew I wanted to be there,” he says, because after he attended Trent University to get a degree in indigenous management and economic development, he realized how insulated he had felt in Lindsay.
“I realized how much I was missing by not exposing myself to other cultures and communities,” he says.
For a while, he stayed with a friend in Iqaluit and took every job he could find, from janitor to student support assistant at a middle school.
After that, his wife received a position in Pangnirtung, helping administrate daycares across the territory. They decided to move for her job to the fly-in-only community.
“I quickly found a position in the government of Nunavut as the ‘senior advisor for culture’ and did that for close to seven years. I helped develop and work with artists across the territory in all artistic disciplines,” he says.
In 2012, just two years before he left the territory to return to Lindsay, he founded his company that is focused on bringing Inuit culture and technology to the country’s most isolated communities.
The reasons for his move back to Lindsay were multiple, says Oliver.
“Nunavut as a whole is incredibly expensive to run any sort of business from. The reality is by moving I could pay myself half of what I would need to pay myself in Nunavut to survive, and run this business.”
Certainly, food prices would shock southerners. In Pangnirtung:
- two frozen burgers cost $11
- a Hungry Man TV dinner, $15
- a 12 pack of Coke, $20
- a jar of Nutella, $17
- 30 rolls of bathroom tissue, $51.99.
At the same time as his kids turned school age, Oliver says he recognized that much of the privilege and opportunity he had in Nunavut was a direct result of the quality of education he had received.
“Nunavut’s education system is exciting and trying to do something no other education system is in Canada — unfortunately, it’s not there yet,” says Oliver.
His children have a close connection to Nunavut, with Inuktitut being their co-first language as a result of the community they lived in.
“But by providing them with a southern education they can choose to go back if they want, and that many more opportunities will be open to them.”
From a business perspective, Oliver felt he really needed to be in the south to control costs.
“Broadband is nearly non-existent, and what passes as broadband is laughably bad, and it’s beyond expensive.”
Oliver says his ability to grow his business from a sustainability standpoint requires him to be active in the major markets.
“And they’re less than forgiving when I miss a flight or meeting because of weather and cost.”
As well, there are huge infrastructure issues in Nunavut.
“The territory is growing 100 times faster than it can keep up with, on all levels,” he says.
As a result, he notes that they can’t get direct graduates with specific skillsets yet.
“That’s why we created the te(a)ch program and why we’re expanding it to give kids those opportunities.”
Te(a)ch is a made-in-Nunavut curriculum and learning series for northerners that focuses on computer science and game development.
Oliver says the biggest misconception people have of Nunavut is that it’s just Canada but colder.
“Nunavut, and Inuit are their own people, their own nation, their own language, and their own solutions. Southern solutions don’t work in Nunavut.”
He says people need to listen to Nunavummiut (the people of the Nunavut territory in general) and to the Inuit specifically in developing solutions to problems caused by colonialism.
“If you go there thinking you know all the answers, that you are the saviour and everyone needs to listen to you, you’re going to die cold and alone. Listen to Inuit — they’ve survived there as long as they have for a reason,” Oliver says.
Oliver says they are still growing the business in Nunavut, “just not from the business development side.”
“It will grow with the best artists, storytellers and as we grow our te(a)ch program, the best developers as a whole. But that’s a process I can manage and sustain better from the south, unfortunately,” he says.
Oliver is a “huge advocate” for coding being taught in school, and says it really helped his generation in the 1990s when it was available at I.E. Weldon Secondary School, where he attended.
“I’m making a big push to have it back in Lindsay high schools by the time my kids get there, in about five years,” so it can benefit the whole community, he says.
Oliver says his company, Pinnguaq, is a big believer community development and wellness.
The company has developed a philosophy in the way it conducts business that reflects that angle first and foremost, including the way it treats staff and the way it approaches development of the company.
From strong diversity and inclusiveness policies to its te(a)ch initiative to build more opportunities in Indigenous communities, Oliver says they are trying to create a business model that works outside of the idea of “unfettered capitalism.”
Oliver says that means positioning the business as a permanent service and an enabler for other tech people in underrepresented communities.
“We didn’t build this company to sell it, but rather to celebrate projects and people that may otherwise be ignored and steamrolled in techs’ constant push to exploit the next big thing.”
“That’s our goal. It’s a constant stop and check to see if we’re doing it right.”