Q&A: Grand Chief Edward John on First Nations' Internet connectivity
Grand Chief Edward John is known as the “champion” of bringing Internet technology to First Nations reserves in British Columbia.
John, a First Nations Summit executive and Tl’azt’en Nation member, is the former chair of the First Nations Technology Council.
The Georgia Straight reached John on his cellphone, and interviewed him about First Nations connectivity and the digital divide in B.C.
Was your role in the creation of the First Nations Technology Council?
The idea developed by kitchen table.
Could you tell me more about that?
What I saw was there was a desperate need for technology. I saw that need in my own community. I started looking around, as a representative of the First Nations Summit, starting seeing that there are many, many other communities—First Nations communities—which did not have any high-speed Internet connection. So, that was the first mission: to determine how many First Nations communities were not connected.
Over time, I raised this matter with the chiefs in our general assemblies and to the point that, from my own perspective, I saw that there was and they—based on discussions with leaders, First Nations communities across the province—felt that we needed to take some proactive steps. This was technology that was taken for granted. Felt that it was important, for those communities, the powers should not take this for granted, that we needed to take steps to start ensuring access to high-speed Internet technology.
So, that was the first part. The second part was what’s called the last-mile solution. From the point of connecting to the community to homes and offices in the community—how do we get that technology to the homes. And the third part was really simple: development of capacity. Elders came to me and said, “We’d like to be able to know how to use this technology and how to understand it and youth in our schools who were using it.” And finding practical ways to help in the training of that.
So, that was really kind of the essence of the beginning of the technology council. Mind you, it’s gone beyond that. But those were the three things that I saw in a city like Vancouver that people just kind of take it for granted that many of our communities could only hope for.
When did you first realize this and decide to work on it?
That was probably 10, 15 years ago now.
The FNTC says that broadband should be considered as key and important as other basic infrastructure like safe roads and running water.
It’s like having the road into your community. It should be a service that’s provided to a community. I agree with that comment.
Could you tell me a bit about that? Is it because there’s safety aspects, there’s education aspects?
Yeah, there’s health aspects. There’s business, education. There’s safety, of course.
How do you make sure that the technology is not abused in the community? Because you can find anything on the Internet these days, how do you protect children like any other community—Vancouver or Surrey or Richmond? What steps do parents take? What steps can a community take to ensure that there’s a degree of safety?
How much have the provincial and federal governments helped with the problem so far?
Well, we got a lot of run-around for a long time. We got a lot of lip service. We heard the premier talking about the digital divide and didn’t really see any action into our communities, except within the last year or so.
It took a long time for the government to come onboard to help in this. We’re still a long ways away, mind you. But we have the beginnings of a process that would allow for access by communities.
How far along do you think we are on dealing with the digital divide?
The first thing we had to do is determine the need. We did the analysis across the board, and then determined how we meet that need. So, that was also done. There’s a costing out that was done. In some of the really remote communities, the cost is absolutely prohibitive, and I’m not sure how in the end you get access to those communities or those communities get access to the high-speed Internet service that is out there.
We had to look at the need. We put a group of people in there. We called in the federal government. We called on the provincial government. We called on the Premier’s Technology Council. We called on service providers and asked them to join with us to help understand the magnitude of the problem and to help understand the challenges that we have in front of us—costwise, distance, all of that—to be able to plan how best we move forward.
That’s what we did. Then we did develop a plan in the end, and we shared this plan with successive ministers, successive governments, government officials on both the federal and provincial side, and in some cases with municipalities as well, because some of these communities were faced with the same kinds of situations we were.
How do you think broadband will impact education on reserves?
Children are going to be able to access information like anyone else. They’ll be able to see the world in a different way. The world, I think, will expand in front of them, once you understand the use of that technology.
So, as a learning tool—a very important learning tool—I think the possibilities are quite endless, in my opinion. But how we make use of it—well, firstly, we have to educate our students about this to get them to understand the possibilities and to see how in our schools we could use this.
We also have to train teachers to be able to provide that kind of education. We can’t assume that all of the teachers have the ability to teach children about this. So, we have to educate people who will be able to provide that in our schools. We have 120 core schools in 203 First Nations communities across the province. So, there’s a base to work from, as well.
So, the connectivity and the technology itself won’t actually solve problems on its own, right? There’s the other aspects, like capacity, right? Do you think government recognizes that there’s more funding needed, more efforts needed in the other areas?
As I said, we got a lot of lip service. I think they know and understand the need is there. We have communities, we have institutions that are into wireless, where our communities are even looking at basic dial-up service for access to this technology.
So, it’s not an easy thing with government. For the most part, it’s not high on their priority list. But they should understand it’s a very important vehicle for social development, for economic development, for the political development of our communities. I think that they need to assist as much as they can in ensuring that this technology is available.
It’s something that communities take for granted across this province, and, as I said, we can’t really assume that service is available. In urban areas, like Musqueam or Squamish or Burrard, you know that you don’t have just one service provider. You have many—you have Rogers, you have Telus, you have Shaw—who are able to provide a service. But that’s, as I said, not readily available in our community. So, we have to make do with what we can.
Are you concerned about any possible negative effects that connectivity could have, perhaps on culture or community?
I don’t see any negative side to this. I mean, on anything, there’s always a downside. But you can manage that. I think the positives completely outweigh the negatives on all fronts. We should be able to manage it.
How much longer do you think it will take to bring about these changes?
It’s a work in progress now. So, we are moving forward on the changes. I’m not sure. Progress depends on the resources available and the ability of the community to meet the challenge with the limited resources that are now available to us. So, all of these things will take time. Some communities will be in a better position to move forward than others.
Anything you want to add?
I appreciate you taking an interest in this. It’s an important area for us. But it’s one that really doesn’t get a lot of attention, but one that I think has immense possibilities and, I think, important opportunities, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
You know, any time technology comes along, we seem to get—our communities seem to get—left behind. But we don’t want to be left behind.
You can follow Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.