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Community Networks 20 January 2021

Indigenous Communities Must Have Internet Access on Their Own Terms

By Mark BuellFormer Regional Vice President - North America

A shorter version of this article was first published in the Toronto Star.

With the recent launch of the Universal Broadband Fund, or UBF, the federal government has committed to addressing the connectivity gap that is far too real for many people living in Canada. Over the past eight months, COVID-19 has shown us how important the Internet is during a crisis. Broadband access has become an essential service as critical as access to water or electricity. Minister Maryam Monsef was correct when she said: “High-speed Internet is more than just a convenience.”

Certainly, an investment of CAD$1.75 billion to help lower the hurdles that have left many Indigenous, rural, and remote communities in Canada on the wrong side of the digital divide is both needed and welcome. But officials need to take care not to disenfranchise the very communities they intend to help in the process. For the most challenging communities to connect to the Internet, success can only happen with community-led initiatives. It is critical that the communities most in need are full partners in the process, driving connectivity solutions that work for them, and have access to the necessary resources to make that happen.

This is an opportunity, not only to ensure everyone has access to this essential service, but to reach that goal through true collaboration with Indigenous communities. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee agrees with the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on that point, urging states to “consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”

In Canada, Indigenous communities are vastly underserved. The majority of on-reserve homes – more than two-thirds – do not have high-speed Internet. Across the North, the problem is particularly pronounced; the CRTC reported that in 2019, fewer than half of Nunavut households have download speeds of even 5Mbps, let alone the government’s target speed of 50/10 Mbps.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of access had disastrous effects, limiting opportunities for education, work, economic development, access to health care – the list goes on.

The pandemic has amplified all that. A case in point: secondary school students on reserves in northern Ontario had to resort to fax machines to carry on their education in the absence of reliable Internet. The digital divide is now playing an even larger role in widening economic, educational, and social divides.

Since 2017, the Internet Society has held an annual Indigenous Connectivity Summit that brings together Indigenous leaders, community members, Internet service providers, community network operators, policymakers, and other stakeholders to hash out solutions. The 2020 summit, held online, wrapped up earlier this month with a set of recommendations for connecting Indigenous communities.

The recommendations highlight some basic needs, such as accurate broadband mapping so that underserved communities are identified and included in federal funding programs, and accountability measures to ensure Internet Service Providers actually provide the bandwidth access they’re supposed to.

More fundamentally, participants stress the importance of government and non-Indigenous entities engaging with Indigenous communities from the very start of any project or program. This includes respecting protocols and standards and partaking in training and cultural education. They call for an increase in Indigenous workers within companies and organizations, and capacity-building in Indigenous communities in order to operate and maintain their own networks. They insist upon the rights of Indigenous governments to the spectrum – the radio waves upon which Internet traffic travels – over their lands. Finally, funding opportunities for Indigenous communities must be straightforward and prioritize community choice. In short, the recommendations offer a guide for governments, private entities, and organizations to include Indigenous communities as full and essential partners in these efforts.

The pandemic has magnified the harm caused by a lack of Internet access and requires a fast, bold response from the government and other entities to minimize the damage. The federal government has indicated its willingness to “accelerate” its efforts. If the federal government intends to reach true digital equity, it is vital that it works collaboratively and inclusively with Indigenous communities – empowering Indigenous communities to own and maintain their own infrastructure.

Read the 2020 Indigenous Connectivity Summit Policy Recommendations.

Image of Community Networks training program participants and community members in Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories ©Angela Gzowski

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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