Denise Williams says much attention is being paid to how First Nations people can get ready to work in British Columbia’s emerging liquefied-natural-gas industry.
But the new executive director of the First Nations Technology Council (www.technologycouncil.ca/) told the Georgia Straight that a key goal of the West Vancouver–based organization is to see more aboriginal people gain the computer skills required to land jobs in the province’s booming tech sector.
“What we’re trying to focus on is this bigger long-term opportunity, because British Columba’s technology sector is the only one that sees growth every single year,” Williams said during an interview at the HiVE coworking space in Vancouver. “There is a gap—a knowledge gap—that needs to be filled, and with so many First Nations people in British Columbia being on the young side of the demographic, there is a real opportunity there.”
Williams, a 33-year-old member of the Cowichan Tribes community on Vancouver Island, assumed the top job at the FNTC three months ago after serving as its acting executive director for 10 months and its director of operations and business development for two years. The Vancouver resident previously worked for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and the independent First Nations Education Steering Committee.
Established by the First Nations Summit in 2002, the FNTC has a mandate to ensure that First Nations communities in the province have access to broadband Internet service, technical support, and assistance with choosing and implementing information-management systems. On September 28, it relaunched its First Nations in B.C. Knowledge Network portal (fnbc.info/), which facilitates the sharing of news, events, and resources among communities.
Back in 2008, only 85 of the 203 First Nations in B.C. had broadband Internet access. The current count is 190. According to the service plan released in February by the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services, all First Nations are expected to have high-speed connectivity by 2017.
“Rural communities in B.C. are underserved in general, but First Nations communities are even more so underserved,” Williams said. “So the digital divide—I’ve heard it defined in a number of different ways, but I think right now there’s still a difference in access. There’s still a difference in priority.”
Tech companies such as Facebook, Hootsuite, Microsoft, and Slack have offices in Vancouver, which lies on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.
However, Williams pointed out that aboriginal people remain underrepresented in the tech sector. Accordingly, she noted the “cornerstone” of the FNTC’s work is “capacity-building” with regard to the digital skills of First Nations people.
“I do strongly believe in technology’s ability to be transformative for an individual and for a community, and I’ve experienced it myself,” said Williams, who spent her early years on Haida Gwaii. “It’s a knowledge-based economy, so the more you know, the better. I think that technology provides us with a really incredible, really fast way to acquire knowledge.”
The FNTC has seven mobile computer labs that allow it to offer technical training in First Nations communities. Project Raven, a program that wrapped up in March, saw 2,269 unemployed and underemployed aboriginal adults in 62 communities complete digital-skills courses. After receiving training, 633 participants gained employment, according to the FNTC’s 2014-15 annual report.
In January, the council brought 20 First Nations students to a free HTML500 boot camp put on by Lighthouse Labs in Vancouver.
According to Williams, federal funding for the FNTC’s operations dried up a few years back. Since then, the council has downsized and adopted a “social enterprise” business model, which sees it offer training to organizations on a fee-for-service basis and selling advertisements on its web portal.
Williams said the FNTC is looking for funding to establish a Bridging to Technology program in partnership with the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology. The introductory program would offer industry-standard certification as well as postsecondary credits.
A June report prepared by B.C. Stats says the province’s tech sector employed 86,800 people and accounted for 4.4 percent of its workforce in 2013. According to Profile of the British Columbia High Technology Sector: 2014 Edition, the industry boasted more employees than the mining, oil and gas, and forestry sectors combined.
“B.C.’s high tech sector continues to face challenges, such as a smaller domestic marketplace and an often tight labour market, which may give B.C. companies a competitive disadvantage, particularly with many of their American counterparts, but also with high tech firms in central Canada,” the report states.
Next week, Williams will graduate from Simon Fraser University with a master’s degree in business administration. She asserted that increasing the representation of aboriginal people in the tech sector would benefit both First Nations communities and companies in the industry.
“I think that there are opportunities for First Nations people to be better connected and participating in this really lucrative, interesting, innovative field,” Williams said. “But there’s also an opportunity for the technology sector to have the insight of aboriginal people. This could, I think, really influence the trajectory of the technology sector, even, because aboriginal people have a unique way of seeing and a unique way of thinking about, especially, opportunities on their traditional territories in British Columbia.”