Q&A: Norm Leech of the First Nations Technology Council on the digital divide

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      Norm Leech says the digital divide in B.C. is growing wider.

      Leech is the chair of the First Nations Technology Council, an organization created by the First Nations Summit in 2002 to address the need for broadband connectivity, computer skills, and technical support in First Nations communities in B.C.

      He’s also a School District 74 trustee, a facilitation specialist with the National Centre for First Nations Governance, and a former chief of the T’it’q’et First Nation.

      The Georgia Straight reached Leech by phone at his home office on McCartney’s Flat Indian Reserve 4, south of Lillooet.

      What’s the broadband situation in your community?

      Well, the main reserve got high-speed connectivity at the same time as town did, because the main reserve is right next to town. So, that was probably three years ago. But then that was it—just the main reserve—and only because it’s cost-effective. So, everyone else waited. That includes me. We just got it last year—across the river and sort of the surrounding communities—and then it only probably goes about five kilometres from town.

      What are your thoughts on the importance of how Internet technology can be used for First Nations education? How can it improve it?

      Well, what it can do is level the playing field. So many of our communities are rural and remote that, of course, they don’t have access to the same resources and just the rest of it as, say, urban kids. So, there’s the possibility that it can help level that playing field.

      Unfortunately, as the level of service and the quality of service in the urban centres improves, and the level of service and quality of service in communities—and this is all rural and remote communities—stays the same, then unfortunately that digital divide is growing. It’s getting wider, in fact. So, in order to realize the opportunity of the Internet and access to global information resources, our children and grandchildren need access to the Internet—quality Internet—so basically high-speed, ADSL quality.

      Not only that, but it provides access to additional services—additional educational services, postsecondary additional coursework. Because in small communities you don’t—say the Grade 12 class isn’t large enough to offer physics and chemistry and biology, so you basically have a much more limited choice. So, having high-speed connectivity allows perhaps distance education, not only in high school but in postsecondary.

      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. Unfortunately, the statistics show that they have a pretty tough time of it. It’s difficult for them to succeed, especially if it’s their first time away from home.

      Do you think the digital divide in communities, in terms of connectivity and user skills and digital literacy, is that harming people’s future educational prospects and job prospects?

      Lack of access? Yeah, that would be that, because if they don’t have access to it—and they may do fine, they may do fantastic in school at home, but then once they get out there and they attend college or university and these other students have had access and it’s built in to their life, right? It’s an integral part of their lifestyle now—Internet, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, Google. They don’t even think about it anymore. And, if our students show up for college, university, and are just starting to learn it, they’re at a severe disadvantage.

      What work is going on right now, in terms of bringing the connectivity? When I spoke to Sue Hanley, it was 80 communities left that still need broadband.

      Or upgrades to better-quality broadband. See, as we say, as the quality of service improves in the urban centres—they’re getting better and better quality—and still we’re being offered consumer grade in communities. Again, that’s shared amongst an entire community. So, not all the same types of services are possible with that level of service. So, we want to bring everyone up to a standard quality of service. So, some of them—there’s probably 80 that we have to still do.

      What’s most exciting to you about the possibilities of Internet education—Internet-enhanced education?

      Well, it’s access to global education. It’s access to all those other students. It’s access to the world. It will broaden the horizons of our young people and our students—and not only them but the elders as well.

      But even more exciting to me is giving the rest of the world access to the knowledge and wisdom that exists in communities. You know, for people that have lived here for 10,000 years, they’ve learned so much. The way of life and the wisdom and knowledge that exists there, I think, is critical in helping people learn to live responsibly on this planet—and I think people are willing to share that. That dialogue is possible with connectivity.

      After the last 80 or so communities get hooked up, what’s next?

      Well, then it’s training. It’s capacity development. We can bring the connectivity to the edge of the community and then we can perhaps help distribute it, but then the first question we get is, “Okay, now what? What do we do with it?” So, then we have to provide training and support, so that it benefits the community, right? You don’t just, “Here you go; here’s high-speed Internet,” and suddenly your life is better. There have to be applications that address your circumstances.

      So, that’s another aspect of our project is to find those—what’s needed in community. Most communities share the same types of needs, right? Employment, education, health services. We believe that technology and connectivity can play a major role in helping deliver those things. But it will be the priorities of the community that determines what they need first.

      What would be next in schools then? Training in schools as well?

      Yep. So, training to administrators, training to teachers, training to the students—the end users—and also helping the community be able to manage their own technical support. It’s not effective if we deliver it and then the only way that we can keep it up and running is, if whenever something happens, a technician has to drive 300 miles to fix it. What the communities need is on-site technical support. So, we need to train some technicians who can support it and then train the end users to use it effectively, so that it does benefit the community in the long run.

      Any challenges or possible problems you can see going forward with rolling out Internet in reserve schools?

      Well, the huge one in British Columbia is geography. It’s sounds easy: “Well, just string fibre to the community.” It’s easier said than done. Not every First Nation in B.C. has electricity yet or telephone service yet. So, just adding Internet connectivity and high-speed connectivity to that list, well, it doesn’t solve it. It just makes it more urgent.

      And, of course, it’s just technology’s changing so fast. So, to make decisions as to, “Okay, how are we going to get it done?” we may make a commitment now that ends up being made obsolete in the next year by new technology. So, we try to balance all those things too.

      You can follow Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.



      Glenda Watson Hyatt

      Sep 3, 2009 at 11:16am

      Great interview! People in the Lower Mainland don't realize the rest of the province do not have high speed Internet connection. With so much information and services available only online, many British Columbians are excluded. Thank you for bringing this issue to your readers.