Denise Williams believes strongly that broadband Internet access can help First Nations in British Columbia broaden the opportunities available on their often rural or remote reserves. The 27-year-old member of the Cowichan Tribes likens high-speed pipes to the roads that connect a community to the rest of the world.
“It’s the infrastructure that’s going to strengthen the entire social fabric of the community,” Williams told the Georgia Straight at a café in Kitsilano. “So, it’s education, it’s health, it’s justice, it’s economy—it’s all of that.”
Williams is the youth initiative officer for the First Nations Education Steering Committee, a West Vancouver–based organization established in 1992 to support First Nations education activities in the province. While 80 of the 203 First Nations in B.C. are still waiting for broadband—a plan to connect them could be announced by the end of the year—the committee is looking at using Internet technology to facilitate the teaching of classes in band-run and independent schools on reserves.
High-speed connectivity allows on-line teleconferencing and video conferencing, as well as interactive applications that incorporate slide shows and instant messaging, to be employed in the delivery of distance education, Williams noted. Using such synchronous technologies, a teacher can remotely instruct a class comprising students in several locations.
“We have all these small communities and small, remote schools, and the issue is that we need math teachers, we need physics teachers, science teachers,” Williams said. “They’re too expensive to come out and be able to actually offer that to the students when there’s only 10 to 20 students.”
About 4,600 students attend the 133 schools on reserves in B.C., many of which teach kindergarten to Grade 4 or 7. (Approximately 12,000 on-reserve and 48,000 off-reserve aboriginal students go to public schools.) While all First Nations schools have some level of Internet access—mostly supported by the federally funded First Nations SchoolNet program—their connections range from dial-up and satellite to cable and digital subscriber lines. At many of the schools, the Internet isn’t built into the curriculum, according to Williams.
Norm Leech, chair of the First Nations Technology Council, warns that, as the quality of Internet access in urban areas continually increases while the level of connectivity in rural communities tends to stay the same, the digital divide in B.C. is growing. But Leech, who’s also a School District 74 trustee and a former chief of the T’it’q’et First Nation, told the Straight that Internet technology could help “level the playing field” for First Nations students, who often have to leave their communities to attend high school or university.
“If our children can achieve a first year of university at home—and at home being where the family is, where our offices are, where our support networks are built-in—then we believe our children will have a much greater chance, or our young people have a much greater chance, of success in preparing for the transition to attending college or university away from home,” Leech said by phone from his home office on McCartney’s Flat Indian Reserve 4, south of Lillooet.
George Abbott, B.C.’s minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation, told the Straight that it’s “very important” to bridge the digital divide facing First Nations. The Liberal MLA for Shuswap noted that the provincial government has invested $30.8 million in First Nations connectivity and digital-literacy programs in the past year.
“Being able to do telehealth consults and educational work in remote communities through high-speed Internet is increasingly important,” Abbott said by phone from Victoria. “It’s important today, and it will grow increasingly important.”
A 2008 report by Richard Smith, a professor of communication at Simon Fraser University, examined the impact of broadband on First Nations in the province. First Nations Communication Research: Final Report found that high-speed access has had a positive effect on education.
“Educational effects are already occurring, both in terms of material brought into the community and people are signing up for outside programs,” the report states.
Smith told the Straight that classrooms with Internet access encourage students to seek out information and find answers to questions on their own. But the professor said that remote teachers will have to learn how to “inspire and intrigue” students in distant locations, so they don’t lose interest.
“One of the really exciting outcomes would be—and you see this a little bit—to see educational products or initiatives that go the other direction,” Smith said by phone from his office on SFU’s downtown campus. “That a remote community is actually teaching people in the rest of the world or the rest of B.C. or the rest of Canada about them.”
Earl Tatoosh, a member of the Hupacasath First Nation, hopes to one day run his band’s Internet and computer systems. In January, Tatoosh, who turns 21 this month, plans to enroll in a four-year computing-science program at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo.
From August 2008 to January 2009, Tatoosh participated in the Internet and Computing Core Certification program offered on-line by the First Nations Education Steering Committee. The digital-literacy program teaches First Nations youth the basic skills necessary to effectively use hardware, software, and the Internet and involves a work-experience placement in their community.
“I’d like to raise the awareness of the need of it—because right now in town people are thinking computers are all about, well, Facebook and on-line poker and stuff—to raise the awareness that computers can do a lot more to help you out,” Tatoosh told the Straight on his cellphone from Port Alberni.
First Nations youth living in remote communities might not know any doctors, lawyers, or Web designers, Williams noted. But she said that using Internet technology in school could open students’ eyes to the myriad educational and career opportunities out there.
“Their scope of what’s possible is limited to where they are,” Williams said. “What technology can do in a school with the Internet is open the whole world.”
You can follow Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.