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Canada’s Digital Divide: Preserving Indigenous Communities Means Bringing Them Online

Canada’s Digital Divide: Preserving Indigenous Communities Means Bringing Them Online

May 3rd, 2018

By Brad Stollery, winner of the 2018 Dalton Camp Award.

The internet ranks among the greatest innovations in history. Yet in spite of continuing progress, four billion people around the world still remain offline, and some of them live right here in Canada.

The bulk of today’s public discourse takes place online, so those who lack access to digital media are less likely to be civically engaged. The stakes are highest for Indigenous Peoples, whose deprivation limits their political participation – voter turnout on reserves has historically been notably lower than elsewhere.1 Their assimilation, should they continue to abandon reserves, also jeopardizes Canada’s diverse character. Canadians are thus obliged to recognize that fortifying our democratic society, and reconciling with Indigenous Peoples in a tangible manner, requires us to remedy the digital disparity that exists here.

In 2015, 96 percent of Canadians had access to broadband internet with a download speed of at least 5 Megabits per second (Mbps) – a laudable improvement from even just a few years earlier. Still, the penetration rate drops to 79 percent for those living in the North, and in any case, access is not the same as affordability: the least expensive broadband service available in Nunavut is far costlier than the cheapest on offer in any province.2 The 96-percent figure is as pernicious as it is impressive, moreover, because it will foster public complacency at the expense of those final few. There are people across the country who lack a utility that is vital for 21st century life. Many of them live in Indigenous communities, where gaining reliable and affordable broadband access is a matter of cultural survival.

The community of Maskwacis, which comprises four First Nations reserves, is a telling example. Located less than 60 kilometres from my affluent hometown in central Alberta, many there have long struggled with gang violence, addiction, and a shortage of potable water. They are also missing an acceptable communications infrastructure, the lack of which is stymieing economic development. The available mobile service is patchy at best, and the town has no telephone landlines, let alone broadband internet access.

At least one resident’s resourcefulness gives cause for optimism. An Al Jazeera documentary last summer showcased Bruce Buffalo’s effort to help revitalize Maskwacis by providing free Wi-Fi to his neighbourhood.3 Although Bruce possesses the technical knowledge required to kick-start such an enterprise, he began by supporting the project out of his own pocket, and eventually was forced to suspend the service when it became too expensive.

When I spoke with Bruce last fall, he told me that through fundraising he was able to resuscitate the project a few months later. Still, the reserve’s rural location forces him to pay a high price relative to the quality of service received. The three Wi-Fi hotspots Bruce installed provide internet access for about a hundred users per day on average, but since the population of Maskwacis is close to 16,000, he is looking to raise more money to buy additional equipment and expand the service. As a tech entrepreneur, Bruce’s MaskwacisFibre project is his livelihood.4

Indigenous Peoples consistently experience higher rates of unemployment than other groups. Few places suffer more than Maskwacis, however, where an unemployment rate estimated at 70 percent reflects a foundering local economy from which most educated people have fled in search of greener pastures.5 While they can hardly be faulted for seeking a better future, that exodus causes ‘brain drain’ that precludes commerce and job creation, and suffocates any municipal tax base needed to support robust local government.

Maskwacis is just one of several reserves in crisis. Based on 2011 data, a study by the C.D. Howe Institute found that on average “only 4 in 10 First Nations young adults living on-reserve graduated from high school,” contrasting with 7 in 10 First Nations young adults living off-reserve, and 9 in 10 non-Indigenous people.6 The dismal on-reserve completion rate has a knock-on effect in higher education: in 2016, only a third of Indigenous people aged 25 to 64 had obtained at least a college diploma, compared to more than half of all Canadians in the same age range.7

The gap in higher education meant that in 2015, Indigenous people were underrepresented in ‘knowledge occupations’ that typically demand university degrees. They were also more likely than non-Indigenous people to work in trade, transportation, and service industries8 – the types of jobs most vulnerable to automation in the coming years. If, by the next recession, Indigenous people still occupy those ‘at-risk’ sectors of the economy disproportionately, their prospects for employment will be worsened further.

We must focus on bridging this digital divide without delay, because the future is fast approaching. The internet is already the global economy’s chief platform. As we advance ever further into the Information Age, high-speed connections will be essential for accommodating the emerging Internet of Things that will soon become a ubiquitous feature of modern life. Those without access to affordable broadband service will be left behind. As a matter of doing right by all Canadians, that must be prevented.

Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien once suggested, regarding the ongoing tragedy in Attawapiskat, Ontario, that the people of that village should abandon it in favour of somewhere offering greater opportunity.9 His controversial viewpoint is likely to be echoed when it comes to closing the internet gap, even if that perspective ignores the symbolic significance of the land to those who inhabit it.

First Nations reserves have a mixed and complicated legacy, serving both as “physical and spiritual home[s]” that “nurture a sense of history and culture,” as well as tangible monuments to a time when governments sought to ghettoize Indigenous Peoples so as to better assimilate them.10 Today’s Indigenous Peoples have inherited a modern version of the same trade-off: in many cases the high standard of living enjoyed by most Canadians can only be had off-reserve and amidst predominantly Euro-Christian culture.

In search of a better life, Indigenous Canadians are migrating to cities faster than any other ethnic group,11 and a 2009 survey found that fewer than one in five First Nations young adults who had left their reserve planned to move back.12 Although young people who choose to leave reserves will pass down aspects of their ancestors’ culture, the communities they leave behind will atrophy so long as successive generations withdraw. Indigenous languages will also be forgotten eventually, except by a handful of scholars in esoteric university programs. On-reserve development can ensure that no one is forced to choose between their culture and their future.

Another strand of argument could contend that digital access cannot be a priority compared to the numerous challenges with which Indigenous communities continue to grapple. Several are burdened by high suicide rates, but lack adequate mental health resources. Many cannot even drink their tap water safely without boiling it first. Compared to these problems, high-speed internet might seem like a luxury to which attention can be postponed.

Yet it would be a mistake to put broadband on the back burner. Peering in on a dire situation from a position of privilege makes one vulnerable to the bigotry of low expectations. We must guard against the callous and hypocritical temptation to treat the meagre gains of impoverished communities as ‘good enough’ if the ensuing standards don’t meet those which we take for granted ourselves.

It is true that physical, logistical, and fiscal hurdles will hinder infrastructure development, especially for Inuit communities whose remoteness poses immense engineering challenges. It is also true that appeals to pragmatism too often serve as cover for apathy and double standards. Canada’s sheer enormity and low population density in rural areas is avowedly an impediment to technology that must span great distances, but it is worth remembering that those barriers have rarely discouraged oil producers from seeking to build profitable new pipelines.

And while a modern digital communications infrastructure on its own is no silver bullet for the poverty trap, without one a brighter future is impossible. In addition to its use for commerce, the internet helps people find work; indeed, it is the primary means by which people search and apply for jobs.13 For their novel capacity to put the universe of human knowledge at one’s fingertips, digital media make learning more accessible, inspiring, and engaging for students, offering them greater incentive to finish school.

The internet occupies and connects people – a tremendous benefit to those who are isolated or lonely, and one that could conceivably lift some from the despondency that engenders suicide. With respect to improving health resources, video-chat capability enables telemedicine and telepsychiatry. The importance of tech projects like Bruce Buffalo’s cannot be overstated, for they have the potential to allay a number of the most pressing difficulties that Indigenous reserves face, including ‘brain drain’.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) offered hope in 2016 by establishing a $750 million fund aimed at ensuring that all Canadians have access to 50/10 Mbps broadband internet. It added that 90 percent of homes and small businesses are expected to have such access by 2021.14 While encouraging, there remains a deafening silence on the prospects for the last tenth.

The standard of living in Canada is one of the highest in the world — except in many Indigenous communities. That is a glaring caveat. As citizens of a society that takes pride in being inclusive, we Canadians ought to appreciate the urgency of bridging the digital divide as a matter of elementary justice, and as part of the general need to reconcile meaningfully with the Indigenous Peoples of this land.

Providing all with satisfactory digital access will enrich Canada’s economy and democracy by incorporating new voices into our public discourse. Most of all, though, closing the internet gap will set the stage for real, lasting reconciliation. Digital access permits Indigenous Peoples to become equal citizens in more than word alone: by stimulating economic development and promoting civil engagement, it returns local autonomy to Indigenous communities, instantiating a sovereignty that should never have been taken from them in the first place.

It is high time that quality, affordable internet access be considered a human right. Canadians must live up to our values by bridging the digital divide. Failing to act decisively would mean allowing a great injustice to fester, and risks the erosion of Indigenous cultures over time, all to the detriment of our democracy’s unique vibrancy.

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