Opinion

Internet as an act of reconciliation

The internet is a powerful tool for change, but we can’t meaningfully move forward as a country if anyone is left behind.

Mark Buell writes that Internet access is still characterized by high costs, low speeds, data caps, and poor or non-existent service in many rural and remote areas across Canada, such as the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit, pictured.
Wikipedia/Aaron M Lloyd photograph

PUBLISHED :Friday, Nov. 17, 2017 1:30 PM

It’s been 897 days since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) outlined its 94 calls to action towards reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, and to say we’re progressing at a snail’s pace would be generous.

Canada’s human rights challenges with regard to Indigenous communities are numerous and not simple to fix. Among them, more than 140 First Nations lack access to safe drinking water, many communities are experiencing epidemic levels of suicide and/or addiction, andIndigenous children are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than non-Indigenous kids.

It’s no surprise that internet access, which the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) declared a basic service in 2016, is still characterized by high costs, low speeds, data caps, and poor or non-existent service in many rural and remote areas across Canada.

It’s time for Canada to recognize internet connectivity in Indigenous communities as a critical tool for reconciliation. Working with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities to ensure access to high-quality, sustainable and affordable internet will not only reinforce our national commitment to the TRC’s calls to action, it will also save lives—literally.

  

To understand the people behind the statistics, take the Eabametoong First Nation as an example. The Northern Ontario fly-in community is on a 13-year boil water advisory and struggles with crowded homes, high youth suicide rates, and opioid addiction. What’s more, kids must travel approximately 300 kilometres to attend high school in Thunder Bay, whose Police Services Board is under review for alleged systemic racism regarding how it handled complaints about police investigations of Indigenous deaths in the city.

Given these alarming facts, it’s easy to imagine Eabametoong Chief Elizabeth Atlookan’s hopefulness when the federal and provincial governments committed $69.2-million in funding to Matawa First Nations last October to build a fibre network that will connect hers and four other Northern Ontario Indigenous communities to high-speed internet.

“It’s great news and one we have been waiting for, for many years,” Atlookan told CBC News Oct. 6. In particular, she said the community could benefit from improved access to tele-psychiatry and telemedicine to address trauma-related issues.

Matawa First Nations-owned telecommunications company Rapid Lynx will build and administer 881 kilometres of fibre optic cable to connect the remote communities, creating additional education, employment and business opportunities in the region.

  

Community-driven networks such as these are critical to self-determination as they empower Indigenous communities to connect themselves to the internet on their own terms. They are built and operated by people working together, combining resources, organizing efforts and connecting themselves to close connectivity and cultural gaps.

At the Internet Society, we work to make sure the internet is open and accessible to everyone, everywhere. We recently held the Indigenous Connectivity Summit (ICS) November 8-9 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to showcase success stories of community networks in North America and abroad, and their impacts on various communities.

One of the main barriers to internet service in vast areas like Northwest Territories and Nunavut is expensive infrastructure. Several speakers at the ICS highlighted the potential of community networks to provide access where traditional or commercial networks do not reach or serve, or where they may not be economically viable to operate.

Despite its connectivity challenges, Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern has witnessed the tremendous potential of the internet to address TRC call to action #14 on the preservation and revitalization of language and culture.

  

Speaking at the ICS, she highlighted an Iqaluit Facebook group that helps local artisans see up to a 400 per cent increase in profit by allowing international customers to bid on hand-made items. Iqaluit Auction Bids has nearly 30,000 members, more than triple the city’s population of 7,740. Redfern says the site’s success has inspired younger generations to learn traditional crafts.

“That is one small example… that is how the internet can spur cultural revitalization, cultural pride, and develop internal economies,” said Redfern at the ICS. “Internet is a good thing for culture.”
Quality internet access also means equipping Indigenous youth with a growing number of powerful traditional language tools like First Voices at their fingertips.

The internet is a powerful tool for change, but we can’t meaningfully move forward as a country if anyone is left behind.

The federal government and all Canadians can play an important role in leveling the playing field by fostering an enabling environment for Indigenous communities to build community networks. This includes supporting opportunities for capacity building, initiatives that promote infrastructure, as well as supportive governance and policies.

In December 2016, the CRTC committed up to $750 million over five years to help internet service providers build or upgrade infrastructure to meet its new targets of broadband at 50/10Mbps with the option of unlimited data for all Canadians in both rural and remote areas and urban centres. It estimates two million households, or roughly 18 per cent of Canadians, don’t have access to those speeds or data.

Similarly, the Government of Canada’s Connect to Innovate program committed $500 million to help build the digital backbone to “last-mile” connections to households that don’t have internet speeds of at least five megabits per second.

Funding initiatives such as these are a great start, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure everyone has access to a tool so vital to our quality of life.

Mark Buell is Internet Society regional bureau director for North America.

The Hill Times