Canada’s Digital Divide: Preserving Indigenous Communities Means Bringing Them Online

Note: This essay was originally published on the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting website. An abridged version was published in the Toronto Star.

The internet ranks among the greatest innovations in history. Yet in spite of continuing progress, 4 billion people around the world still remain offline, and some of them live right here in Canada.

The bulk of today's public discourse takes place online, so those who lack access to digital media are less likely to be civically engaged. The stakes are highest for Indigenous Peoples, whose deprivation limits their political participation – voter turnout on reserves has historically been notably lower than elsewhere.i Their assimilation, should they continue to flee reserves, also jeopardizes Canada’s diverse character. Canadians are thus obliged to recognize that fortifying our democratic society, and reconciling with Indigenous Peoples in a tangible manner, requires us to remedy the digital disparity that exists here.

In 2015, 96% of Canadians had access to broadband internet with a download speed of at least 5 Megabits per second (Mbps) – a laudable improvement from even just a few years earlier. Still, the penetration rate drops to 79% for those living in the North, and in any case, access is not the same as affordability: the least expensive broadband service available in Nunavut is far costlier than the cheapest on offer in any province.ii The 96% figure is as pernicious as it is impressive, moreover, because it will foster public complacency at the expense of those final few. There are people across the country who lack a utility that is vital for 21st -century life. Many of them live in Indigenous communities, where gaining reliable and affordable broadband access is a matter of cultural survival.

The community of Maskwacis, which comprises four First Nations reserves, is a telling example. Located less than 60 km from my affluent hometown in central Alberta, many there have long struggled with gang violence, addiction, and a shortage of potable water. They are also missing an acceptable communications infrastructure, the lack of which is stymieing economic development. Mobile service is patchy at best, and the available wireless broadband internet is too expensive for many residents, if it reaches them at all.

At least one resident’s resourcefulness gives cause for optimism. An Al Jazeera documentary last summer showcased Bruce Buffalo’s effort to help revitalize Maskwacis by providing free Wi-Fi to his neighbourhood.iii Although Bruce possesses the technical knowledge required to kickstart such an enterprise, he began by supporting the project out of his own pocket, and eventually was forced to suspend the service when it became too expensive.

When I spoke with Bruce recently, he told me that through fundraising he was able to resuscitate the project a few months later. Still, the reserve’s rural location forces him to pay a high price relative to the quality of service received. The three Wi-Fi hotspots Bruce installed provide internet access for about a hundred users per day on average, but since the population of Maskwacis is close to 16 000, he is looking to raise more money to buy additional equipment and expand the service. As a tech entrepreneur, Bruce's MaskwacisFibre project is his livelihood.iv

Indigenous people consistently experience worse rates of unemployment than other groups. Few places suffer worse than Maskwacis, however, where an unemployment rate estimated at 70% reflects a foundering local economy from which most educated people have fled in search of greener pastures.v While they can hardly be faulted for seeking a better future, that exodus causes 'brain drain' that precludes commerce and job creation, and suffocates any municipal tax base needed to support robust local government.

Maskwacis is just one of several reserves in crisis. Based on 2011 data, a study by the C.D. Howe Institute found that on average “only 4 in 10 First Nations young adults living on-reserve graduated from high school,” contrasting with 7 in 10 First Nations young adults living off-reserve, and 9 in 10 non-Indigenous people.vi The dismal on-reserve finishing rate has a knock-on effect in higher education: in 2016, only a third of Indigenous people aged 25 to 64 had obtained at least a college diploma, compared to more than half of all Canadians in the same age range.vii

The gap in higher education meant that in 2015, Indigenous people were underrepresented in 'knowledge occupations' that typically demand university degrees. They were also more likely than non-Indigenous people to work in trade, transportation, and service industriesviii – the types of jobs most vulnerable to automation over the next decade. If, by the next recession, Indigenous people still occupy those 'at-risk' sectors of the economy disproportionately, their prospects for employment will be worsened further.

We must focus on bridging the digital divide without delay, because the future is fast approaching. The internet is already the global economy’s chief platform. As we advance ever further into the Information Age, high-speed connections will be essential for accommodating the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) that will soon become a ubiquitous feature of modern life. Those without access to affordable broadband service will be left behind. As a matter of doing right by all Canadians, that must be prevented.

Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien once suggested, regarding the ongoing tragedy in Attawapiskat, Ontario, that the people of that village should abandon it in favour of somewhere offering greater opportunity.ix His controversial viewpoint is likely to be echoed when it comes to closing the internet gap, even if that perspective ignores the symbolic significance of the land to those who inhabit it.

First Nations reserves have a mixed and complicated legacy, serving both as “physical and spiritual home[s]” that “nurture a sense of history and culture,” as well as tangible monuments to a time when governments sought to ghettoize Indigenous people so as to better assimilate them.x Today’s Indigenous Peoples have inherited a modern version of the same trade-off: in many cases the high standard of living enjoyed by most Canadians can only be had off-reserve and amidst predominantly Euro-Christian culture.

In search of a better life, Indigenous Canadians are migrating to cities faster than any other ethnic group,xi and a 2009 survey found that fewer than 1 in 5 First Nations young adults who had left their reserve planned to move back.xii Although young people who choose to leave reserves will pass down aspects of their ancestors’ culture, the communities they leave behind will atrophy so long as successive generations withdraw. Indigenous languages will also be forgotten eventually, except by a handful of scholars in esoteric university programs. On-reserve development can ensure that no one is forced to choose between their culture and their future.

Another strand of argument could contend that digital access cannot be a priority compared to the numerous challenges with which Indigenous communities continue to grapple. Several are burdened by high suicide rates, but lack adequate mental health resources. Many cannot even drink their tap water safely without boiling it first. Compared to these problems, high-speed internet might seem like a luxury to which attention can be postponed.

Yet it would be a mistake to put broadband on the back burner. Peering in on a dire situation from a position of privilege makes one vulnerable to the bigotry of low expectations. We must guard against the callous and hypocritical temptation to treat the meagre gains of impoverished communities as “good enough” if the ensuing standards don’t meet those which we take for granted ourselves.

It is true that physical, logistical, and fiscal hurdles will hinder infrastructure development, especially for northern Inuit communities whose remoteness poses immense engineering challenges. It is also true that appeals to pragmatism too often serve as cover for apathy and double standards. Canada’s sheer enormity and low population density in rural areas is avowedly an impediment to technology that must span great distances, but it is worth remembering that those barriers have rarely discouraged oil producers from seeking to build profitable new pipelines.

And while a modern digital communications infrastructure on its own is no silver bullet for the poverty trap, without one a brighter future is impossible. In addition to its use for commerce, the internet helps people find work; indeed, it is the primary means by which people search and apply for jobs.xiii For their novel capacity to put the universe of human knowledge at one’s fingertips, digital media make learning more accessible, inspiring, and engaging for students, offering them greater incentive to finish school.

The internet occupies and connects people – a tremendous benefit to those who are isolated or lonely, and one that could conceivably lift some from the despondency that engenders suicide. With respect to improving health resources, video-chat capability enables telemedicine and telepsychiatry. The importance of tech projects like Bruce Buffalo’s cannot be overstated, for they have the potential to allay a number of the most pressing difficulties that Indigenous reserves face, including 'brain drain'.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) offered hope in 2016 by establishing a $750 million fund aimed at ensuring that all Canadians have access to 50/10 Mbps broadband internet. It added that 90% of homes and small businesses are expected to have such access by 2021.xiv While encouraging, there remains a deafening silence on the prospects for the last tenth.


The standard of living in Canada is one of the highest in the world — except in several Indigenous communities. That is a glaring caveat. As citizens of a society that takes pride in being inclusive, we Canadians ought to appreciate the urgency of bridging the digital divide as a matter of elementary justice, and as part of the general need to reconcile meaningfully with the Indigenous Peoples of this land.

Providing all with satisfactory digital access will enrich Canada’s economy and democracy by incorporating new voices into our public discourse. Most of all, though, closing the internet gap sets the stage for real, lasting reconciliation. Digital access permits Indigenous Peoples to be equal citizens in more than word alone: by stimulating economic development and promoting civil engagement, it returns local autonomy to Indigenous communities, instantiating a sovereignty that should have never been taken from them in the first place.

It is high time that quality, affordable internet access be considered a human right. Canadians must live up to our values by bridging the digital divide here. Failing to act decisively would mean allowing a great injustice to fester, and risks the erosion of Indigenous cultures over time, all to the detriment of our democracy's unique vibrancy.

 

Citations

iOn-Reserve Voter Turnout – 42nd General Election. Elections Canada, last modified October 27, 2016, http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/eval/pes2015/ovt&document=index&lang=e.

ii2.0 Canada’s Communication System: An Overview for Canadians. Communications Monitoring Report 2016, CRTC, last modified October 26, 2016, https://crtc.gc.ca/eng/publications/reports/policymonitoring/2016/cmr2.htm.

iiiSan San F. Young, “Broadband Bruce: Fighting Canada’s Digital Divide,” Al Jazeera, June 17, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2017/06/broadband-bruce-fighting-canada-digital-divide-170614123247706.html.

ivBruce Buffalo, Facebook message to author, November 11, 2017.

vJen Gerson, “Troubled Alberta reserve plagued by unemployment and violence, signals hope for change by restoring Cree name,” National Post, January 2, 2014, http://nationalpost.com/news/canada/troubled-alberta-reserve-plagued-by-unemployment-and-violence-signals-hope-for-change-by-restoring-cree-name.

viBarry Anderson and John Richards, “Students in Jeopardy: An Agenda for Improving Results in Band-Operated Schools,” C.D. Howe Institute, January 2016, p. 1.

vii Education in Canada: Key results from the 2016 Census. The Daily, Statistics Canada, last modified November 29, 2017, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/171129/dq171129a-eng.htm.

viiiAboriginal people and the labour market. The Daily, Statistics Canada, last modified March 16, 2017, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/170316/dq170316d-eng.htm.

ix“Jean Chrétien’s solution for struggling Attawapiskat reserve: they should move,” National Post, April 12, 2016, http://nationalpost.com/news/jean-chretiens-solution-for-struggling-attawapiskat-reserve-they-should-move.

xHarvey A. McCue, “Reserves,” Historica Canada, last modified April 22, 2015, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-reserves/.

xiMayana C. Slobodian, “State of the First Nations: indigenous Canadians are reclaiming the city,” The Guardian, July 6, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/jul/06/state-first-nations-most-indigenous-canadians-live-cities.

xiiQtd in Ally Quinney and Elizabeth Haines, “Brain drain challenges First Nation communities across Canada,” CBC News, April 29, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/brain-drain-challenges-first-nation-communities-across-canada-1.2611029.

xiiiAaron Smith, “The internet and job seeking,” Pew Research Center, November 19, 2015, http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/11/19/1-the-internet-and-job-seeking/.

xivClosing the Broadband Gap. CRTC, last modified June 28, 2017, https://crtc.gc.ca/eng/internet/internet.htm.

 

Many thanks to Joe, Court, and Eleni for their editorial assistance.