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Digital Equity for Indigenous Communities

emma blog article computer photo
Photo Credit: Emma Greenfield
July 7, 2020

Emma Greenfield is a 2020 Social Connectedness Fellow working with TakingITGlobal to document the barriers and best practices within post-secondary institutions to create more inclusive environments for Indigenous students. Emma’s work largely centres around reimagining education systems that are more inclusive of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit stories, knowledge, and perspectives. 

As measurements to limit the spread of COVID-19 include physical distancing, nearly five million Canadians transitioned to working from home as well as many students who transitioned to online learning at home. For the 94 percent of Canadians with internet access at home, the transition to a more digital world is entirely possible. But what about those who do not have access to high-quality internet? What about Indigenous communities on the wrong side of the digital divide?

According to a 2017 survey, only 24 percent of households in Indigenous communities have access to quality, high-speed internet. This discrepancy makes it impossible for some to socially connect with family and friends, to share and receive important information, and to benefit from the same internet access that almost all Canadians have. In the fast expansion of technology, why should anyone be left behind? 

The  ‘digital divide’ is a term that is used to describe the gap that exists between those who have access to information and communication technologies (e.g. the internet) and those who do not. Some of the reasons for the digital divide include lack of digital literacy, high costs of online access, and lack of connectivity. Although these are part of the barriers that some First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities face, the disproportionate digital divide they experience speaks to a greater human rights and equity issue: the government has not adequately invested in the infrastructure needed for Indigenous communities to have fast, reliable internet. This inequity is not random and it denies many Indigenous people an essential service that they are entitled to. 

Illustration by Emma Greenfield

The UN has declared access to the internet a human right. This declaration is formed on the basis that having access to the internet means being able to exercise other fundamental human rights and freedoms (e.g. right to freedom of speech). For Indigenous people, the internet is a tool for cultural survival, acting as a hub for Indigenous languages and traditional stories. Without leaving their community, Indigenous youth and adults are able to learn skills, meet Indigenous role models, obtain a degree/diploma, access healthcare, and share their stories with the world. 

The possibilities for community, social connectedness, and healing over the internet is evident through the rise of virtual Pow Wows, online talking circles, and Indigenous speakers series. For reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, internet connectivity means the ability to build relationships with one another by sharing, listening, and learning. It creates possibilities to reconcile the shared history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people that has eroded over time, allowing for a resurgence of Indigenous stories to reinvigorate digital spaces. Although COVID-19 impacted how National Indigenous Peoples Day was celebrated on June 21st, community events continued in the safety of one’s home where internet capabilities were viable.

Indigenous people should have the opportunity to contribute to the future they are already a part of. Closing the digital divide means more opportunities for Indigenous people to participate in a digital future while preserving their self-determination. The resilience and innovation of Indigenous people who also have access to the internet means the possibilities of reconciliation and resurgence are infinite. 

So, why does the digital divide still exist?

Although the standard of living in Canada is one of the highest in the world, many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities are still fighting for basic human rights to be met. The struggle for digital equity not only exacerbates the struggle…it silences it. Without access to the internet, the world might not have witnessed land defenders in Standing Rock and Wet’suwet’en who live-streamed their resistance on multiple media platforms. Idle No More grew from a small protest to a global movement through a Facebook page and a widely-shared hashtag. 

While the digital divide still exists, the Canadian government has revealed a Connectivity Strategy that includes partnering with Indigenous communities for better internet access. Government investments in infrastructure are absolutely necessary in closing the digital divide. All Canadians can hold their government accountable to this. And there is no better time than right now to do so. To be able to share and receive important information, such as how communities are responding to COVID-19, is both a matter of personal and public health and safety. The displacement of Indigenous people due to colonization placed them at risk of social isolation. These diverse and brilliant communities are entitled to every essential resource: clean drinking water, adequate infrastructure, accessible healthcare services, and internet connectivity.

In advocating for social connectedness, we must move towards a digitally equitable future. The basic human experience of connection should be accessible to all. A digitally equitable future is one that everyone can participate in -to share, to learn, to relate, to heal, and to be together. Indigenous people have always adapted to the contemporary changes of the world around them, in spite of the barriers placed in front of them. This call to eliminate the digital divide is one more example of this. 

Illustration by Emma Greenfield

For further action to move towards a more digitally equitable future, you can do the following:

●     Watch: Broadband Bruce: Fighting Canada’s Digital Divide

●     Read: Internet Society – Indigenous Connectivity

●     Listen: Denise Williams on Bridging the Digital Divide

●     Hashtag: #DigitalEquity

●     Sign: Accessible/Affordable Internet Across the North

●     Donate: Mamawapowin Technology Society