Will technology be the great digital age equalizer in Canada?

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored how critical reliable access to the internet is. It has also exacerbated digital privilege and deepened the digital divide.

Lack of internet access and affordability has been an issue in Canada since the invention of the internet. Most Indigenous communities across the country are excluded, systemically oppressed and not invited to the tables where the policies, laws and regulations that guide our digital society are made.

There are very real consequences to this. Thousands of Indigenous families throughout the province don’t have the internet access required to transition their kids to at-home, online learning. What’s more, they can’t access essential health services through tele-health, track news and information, apply and receive government services like CERB. They can’t do basic things like connect with friends and family over Zoom or watch Netflix to pass the time while we’re all stuck inside. These are all things that many people in digitally privileged communities take for granted.

In Canada, only 35% of households on First Nation reserves have access to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s internet speed target of unlimited 50 Mbps for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads, a speed at which multiple users can comfortably stream and download larger files and applications. However, a staggering 13% do not even have access to 5 Mbps download speeds. This is not good enough. It points to the fact that we have built a telecommunications system in Canada that serves some very well and conversely does not serve others at all.

We should all have the opportunity to build and use technologies in our communities, businesses and families. Unfortunately, it’s just not so. For example, in a small community approximately 50 kilometres outside of Quesnel, an Indigenous woman and her husband operate a resort and campground. They often host Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth groups or tree planters in the spring. Because there is no option for accessible, high-speed internet in their community, they subscribe to a satellite internet provider, which is well below the 50/10 Mbps speed.

They also use a satellite phone service that has extremely poor reception. Calls are therefore frequently dropped and potential clients are lost as a result. The pandemic has been devastating for their business. Being unable to consistently communicate and take bookings online has resulted in crushing revenue losses.

Canada’s national telecommunications model is profit-driven, lightly regulated and has consolidated power to a handful of actors. The result is that if a community cannot produce an attractive return on investment, it moves down or off the list of the few service providers. This leaves communities across the country, many of which are Indigenous, left to lobby the government and build business cases for our right to connect to the platform that our modern society and economy are built on.

This is not a question about technology. The technology exists to connect all Canadians. Instead, this is a moral, ethical and philosophical question: who in our society gets access to humanity’s most powerful tool, what does it get used for and what rights do we – as citizens – have in determining any of this?

If we believe all citizens should have equal and affordable access and that this should be central to our idea of “building back better” post-pandemic, then it is imperative that our collective voices are heard and that we continue to centre the rights of all people in the design of the digital and connected future.

Access to technology is essential to Indigenous sovereignty, the full expression and enjoyment of fundamental rights and participation in the economy.

It is also a basic human right as defined by the United Nations. As such, the systems that have created digital inequity in Canada must be challenged and reimagined. This process not only will help our society achieve a tangible act of reconciliation and uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples, but will also benefit all Canadians.

Our right to access and have a voice in the design of our future is the work of everyone in the service of future generations. •

Denise Williams is the CEO of the First Nations Technology Council.