First Nations seeking to cross digital divide

Advocates say broadband access is as crucial to communities as safe roads and clean water

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      Dustin Rivers isn’t shy about expressing his views on indigenous politics on-line. Earlier this year, the Skwxwú7mesh-Kwakwaka’wakw activist, artist, and writer used his blog to criticize the salaries of the Squamish Nation’s band council and call for term limits and a forensic audit of the band’s books.

      Rivers, who turns 20 this week, told the Georgia Straight that the Internet has helped him disseminate information to Squamish Nation members living on- and off-reserve, and as far away as Vancouver Island and Washington state.

      Sue Hanley, coordinator of the First Nations Technology Council, explains the digital divide.

      “So, I had people from my community reading my blog and finding out about my blog, and learning things about what was happening on a political level within the band council and with the nation from my blog,” Rivers said on the patio of a café at West Vancouver’s Park Royal Shopping Centre. “It became an organizing tool or a way to communicate where there is no communication.”

      Rivers is able to blog, e-mail, and use social media like Facebook and Twitter because he has a high-speed Internet connection at his home on Capilano Indian Reserve 5. That’s not the case for residents of many rural reserves across British Columbia. Eighty of the 203 First Nations in the province still don’t have broadband access, but a plan to connect them could be announced before the end of the year.

      Sue Hanley told the Straight that the lack of Internet connectivity, residential access, computers, technical support, and user skills in many First Nations communities constitutes a digital divide in B.C. Hanley is the coordinator of the First Nations Technology Council, an organization established by the First Nations Summit in 2002 to address this issue.

      “When you hear about the statistics that the B.C. government likes to point out—that B.C. is the most connected province in Canada—more often than not, because of where they’re located, it’s the First Nations communities that are on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Hanley said, in an interview at Kitsilano Beach.

      Seventy-seven percent of Canadians have Internet access at home, according to a 2007 survey by the Canadian Internet Project. In contrast, a 2005 report by the First Nations Technology Council found that in 55 percent of B.C. First Nations communities, 50 percent or fewer of the homes were connected to the Internet. The top three reasons why B.C. First Nations households couldn’t log on to the Internet were a lack of computers, the cost of access, and the absence of telephone service, the report noted.

      Hanley said one of the council’s primary goals is to bring “industrial-grade” fibre-based broadband to all First Nations in the province. According to the council’s 2006–2008 strategic plan, remote communities need better high-speed connections than urban areas to make up for the lack or absence of emergency, health, and education services. The plan asserts that broadband should be considered as “basic community infrastructure”, like roads and electricity-distribution networks.

      “First Nations citizens should not be forced to choose between clean water and access to technologies that can bring transformative changes to their communities,” the strategic plan states.

      With enough bandwidth, communities can employ videoconferencing to deliver clinical telehealth services and advanced-education programs, Hanley said. She noted that connectivity also helps First Nations to better deal with governments and companies, increase business opportunities on reserves, and preserve and revitalize their languages and cultures.

      Dustin Rivers, a Skwxwú7mesh-Kwakwakawakw blogger, talks about his use of Internet technology.

      In 2005, the federal and provincial governments and the First Nations Leadership Council signed the Transformative Change Accord, aiming to “bridge the differences in socio-economic standards” between First Nations people and other British Columbians within 10 years. The agreement included a pledge to provide broadband connectivity to First Nations communities.

      In November 2008, the B.C. government announced a $22.5-million grant to All Nations Trust Company, an aboriginal-owned financial institution, to create two funds aimed at making good on the accord’s promise. Out of the total, $17.5 million was earmarked for high-speed infrastructure while $5 million was allotted to digital literacy and computer skills programs. In February 2009, the province announced an additional $8.3 million dedicated to improving connectivity. In March, the federal government contributed $7.86 million to set up satellite broadband in 21 of the most remote B.C. First Nations communities.

      Hanley said the provincial funding for what is now known as the Pathways to Technology project will “push us a long way along the connectivity” but that more money is needed for skills development. As far as federal funding for fibre-based broadband is concerned, she said there is “ongoing lobbying”.

      Bob Simpson, the B.C. New Democratic Party’s critic for aboriginal relations and reconciliation, told the Straight that, in addition to First Nations, many rural communities throughout the province are waiting for connectivity. But the Cariboo North MLA said it’s “troubling” that the Liberal government is willing to spend money on Internet access while it waits for the federal government to come forward with funds for housing and clean water on reserves.

      “So, I just find it a little bit odd that the provincial government is willing to take the lead, put money on the table for broadband—as important as that is—and yet we have a reserve in Port Hardy that needs new housing,” Simpson said by cellphone from Kelowna. “I have two reserves in my area that need clean fresh water, and the provincial government won’t take the lead on that because the federal government’s not taking the lead.”

      Chuck Strahl, the federal minister of Indian affairs, did not grant an interview. Neither did George Abbott, B.C.’s minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation, or Ben Stewart, the province’s minister of citizens’ services, whose ministry oversees Internet connectivity projects.

      Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl’azt’en Nation realized more than a decade ago that his northern B.C. community had a “desperate need” for Internet technology. The First Nations Summit executive went on to discover that many other remote reserves didn’t have high-speed access. That led him to spearhead efforts to create the technology council and put First Nations on the path to connectivity.

      By cellphone, John told the Straight that, for years, governments gave First Nations “a lot of runaround” and “lip service” on the issue. It wasn’t until the last year or so that they began to see some action, he noted.

      “For the most part, it’s not high on their priority list,” John said. “But they should understand it’s a very important vehicle for social development, for economic development, for the political development of our communities.”

      Shawn Atleo, the B.C. regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, knows better than most the impact that the Internet can have on learning. Through an on-line program, he earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, in 2003.

      B.C. regional chief Shawn Atleo earned a master's
      degree through an on-line program. Stephen Hui photo.

      Atleo is one of five candidates on the ballot for the assembly’s national-chief election on Wednesday (July 22). In an interview at the Straight’s offices in May, he said that the digital divide contributes to “externally imposed divisions” between First Nations people who live in urban areas and those who reside on remote reserves.

      “We’ve got to get the pipes laid,” Atleo said, referring to broadband connections. “Then we’ve got to fill those pipes with supports to communities, so the communication and sense of isolation gets diminished.”

      Having grown up in an urban area, Rivers said the digital divide hasn’t affected him. But he argued that it’s important for rural First Nations communities to obtain technology that will help them communicate with each other and the rest of the world.

      This summer, Rivers plans to develop a podcast that will help youth in his community learn Skwxwú7mesh Snichim, the language of his people, which is endangered. Rather than having to go to a teacher or an elder, people will be able to download episodes to their computers and iPods.

      “There’s a massive interest, a massive desire among our young people in my community to learn the language,” Rivers said. “So, this will be a way to help bring it to them, help offer them something, and they’ll be able to grab on to it.”

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      Jul 21, 2009 at 7:02am



      Jul 22, 2009 at 11:02pm