Throughout the pandemic, there have been unparalleled levels of collaboration across government to provide the tools Canadians need to stay safe, healthy and informed.

Since June 2020, federal partners have been meeting regularly with web managers in the provinces and territories to coordinate COVID-19 communication efforts between jurisdictions. Together, we are working to provide a better user experience and to reflect Canada’s diverse population as much as possible (including seniors, youth, Indigenous peoples, and people from a wide variety of ethnic origins).

In August, the Northwest Territories (NWT) shared how they use illustrations to make COVID-19 web content and communications products more accessible to all their communities.

Regional context of the Northwest Territories

The NWT is a land of diversity which consists of 33 communities spread over 1.3 million kilometers. Of those, 12 communities are fly-in only. With a mix of urban and rural living, the speed and cost for digital infrastructure can vary significantly.


The NWT web team talked about how they are ensuring their government communications materials are created in their 11 different official languages:

  • English
  • French
  • Chipewyan/Dené
  • Cree
  • Gwich’in
  • North Slavey
  • South Slavey
  • Tłįchǫ
  • Inuktitut
  • Inuinnaqtun
  • Inuvialuktun

As you can imagine, creating quality web content quickly is challenging. Applying plain language principles so that everyone can understand is essential.

Other challenges in the NWT

  • Many Indigenous languages are passed down orally, and written versions often vary between dialects
  • Access to translators is limited and turn-around times vary
  • 70% of Indigenous adults are below level 3 of the international functional literacy standard in English
  • The government websites do not support Inuktitut and Tłįchǫ Unicode fonts
  • Some elders and communities have limited access to digital hardware and platforms

Overcoming language barriers with images

While plain language is always a top priority, the NWT’s web team has also found that images can be helpful for increasing understanding across languages. However, in remote areas where data plans are costly and download speeds can be very slow, images can create an accessibility issue. Their solution has been to use illustrations instead of photos. This lets them use a lower resolution, which means smaller file sizes and quicker load times.

A long description can be found after the image.
Screen capture of NWT illustrated social media ad

Screen capture of an informational video on COVID-19 prevention measures produced by the NWT using a low-bandwidth illustration style.

Through the pandemic, the NWT’s illustrated social media ads (such as Facebook and Instagram) have focused on behavioural change, general hygiene and certain public health orders.

They used icons and simple illustrations on their websites and downloadable tools such as symptom checker forms. This made it easier to understand the content if the copy wasn’t translated.

Balancing act between timeliness, language and technology

Public awareness campaigns were built around imagery as they weren’t always able to translate all digital content into every official language.

Using images let NWT balance language accessibility with technical accessibility, and ensure that everyone got the message. This meant they were able to convey the most crucial, basic concepts to all of their audiences, regardless of their oral or written language capabilities.

Final word

Graphic-heavy pages take longer to load. It takes extra effort to make them accessible and mobile-friendly. We often discourage the use of graphics as they can also distract from the main task of a page. However, as we see here, there are times when a well-chosen graphic, used for the right reasons, can enhance understanding.

As always, know your audience and their challenges when developing any web product. This will help you design your message so that it reaches them no matter what the obstacles are.

One way you can get to know your audience more is by working with provinces and territories who can share specific insights. Through collaboration across government, we can help create better communications products that reach everyone.

Thank you to the NWT web team for sharing your lessons!

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