Indigenous youth lack digital opportunities: report

Study highlights Canada’s need to boost digital literacy in First Nations communities

John Stackhouse, senior vice-president at RBC’s Office of the CEO: “This is a huge moment for Canada and the Indigenous community, especially Indigenous youth” | Submitted

Government, educational institutions and others need to play a bigger role in boosting digital literacy among Indigenous youth, a new RBC report says.

The consequences of not doing so, the bank’s researchers say, not only will be a waste of a crucial and dynamic segment of the Canadian workforce, but will also continue to alienate Indigenous communities from the economic advancements seen in other Canadian demographics.

RBC’s Building Bandwith report was based on 18 months of roundtables and interviews with Indigenous youth as well as other stakeholders. The results showed that, despite Indigenous youth’s propensity to use digital devices as much as the rest of the Canadian population, there is a 13% gap between Indigenous respondents’ confidence in their digital skills compared with that of the non-Indigenous population.

A big reason for that, the report found, was the lack of reliable high-speed Internet connections in Indigenous communities. Statistics cited by RBC show only about 24% of such communities have access to stable high-speed Internet service – a sharp contrast to Ottawa’s target of 98% high-speed Internet coverage of Canadian households by 2026 – a mere five years away.

“In some ways, I thought we had made more progress in Internet access,” said John Stackhouse, senior vice-president at RBC’s Office of the CEO and a best-selling author and researcher. “One of the realities that not enough Canadians appreciate is that – while many communities are connected – they don’t have quality connectivity. That’s critical if you are trying to run a business, work or learn in any field.”

Stackhouse said RBC hopes the report’s release, which coincides with the country focusing on its past wrongdoings against the Indigenous community, with discoveries of unmarked graves at several former residential school sites since the year began, will spur government and other stakeholders into action in building a bridge to the next generation of Indigenous youth.

Part of that bridge, Stackhouse said, has to be an equal economic footing for Indigenous communities’ youth to reach the business opportunities that are available to other Canadians. And digital literacy is an essential part of that footing.

“This is a huge moment for Canada and the Indigenous community, especially Indigenous youth,” he said. “We are seeing profound levels of investment and wealth creation in the innovation economy and digital sectors. It is really critical we don’t let this moment race by without creating ways for that capital – especially venture capital – to flow into Indigenous communities and fund Indigenous ideas that can thrive on digital platforms.”

Stackhouse added that digital literacy isn’t just a foundational skill for the tech sector. With the integration of automation, artificial intelligence and internet-of-things (IoT) into people’s daily lives, an understanding of the digital language can open career and entrepreneurship opportunities in sectors like online health and education services, e-commerce and digitally enabled work in forestry, agriculture and mining.

The RBC also noted that, unlike the rest of the Canadian population, the Indigenous community skews younger in its demographic (with an average age of 29 versus 41 for Canada as a whole). Population growth in the segment is four times that of non-Indigenous youth. In fact, if current trends hold, youth below the age of 29 will make up 45% of the Canadian Indigenous community.

“We are seeing in Canada both a growing number of retirements and resignations,” Stackhouse said. “People are quitting their jobs because of other opportunities or lifestyle choices. So we think there’s going to be a pretty serious labour crunch across our economy in the next year, and we have to find ways to get more parts of the population re-engaged productively in the economy, and that includes Indigenous Canadians. It’s imperative that we build those bridges.”

Among the report’s recommendations are that Ottawa fulfil its commitment to provide high-speed Internet infrastructure to all Canadians by 2030, as well as boost Indigenous entrepreneurs’ access to venture capital. Schools, it said, should do more in providing digital devices and tech education opportunities, including apprenticeships, and their programs should be funded by the provincial governments.

The report also calls for an expanded “representation of Indigenous culture, languages and content in online spaces.”

Stackhouse said banks also need to play a bigger role in engaging Indigenous communities on investment channels supporting local entrepreneurs.

“I think it’s a really important moment for Canadians to both reflect on the past and look to the future – and understand, with a bit of humility, what we can do to support Indigenous youth in very different ways than we have in the past,” he said. “We have to recognize how fundamentally different each sector is going to be from now on, and we have to ensure the 750,000 Indigenous youths who will move into careers in the next decade – who will shape the Canadian economy for the next 25 years – have the skills to do just that.” •