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The Activist Fighting for High-Tech Reconciliation for Canada's Indigenous People

As executive director of the First Nations Technology Council, Denise Williams wants to equalize the digital playing field for BC’s Indigenous communities.

by Jordan Pearson
Jan 25 2018, 10:47pm

Rei Watanabe

For all of the recent praise that’s been lavished upon Canada and our handsome Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not being Donald Trump, it’s still a divided nation. There’s the geographical divide (despite being larger than the continental US, Canada has the population of California) but a digital one, too.

While populous areas have all of the internet infrastructure you’d expect in a modern country, many areas in Canada still have dial-up connections or worse. These underserved areas include rural and Northern regions, and crucially, Indigenous communities. Indigenous Peoples have been systematically marginalized socially, economically, and technologically in Canada for all of its 150 years in existence and even before—many communities still do not have clean water to drink—and the digital world is just one more area where they’ve been, in some cases, left to fall through the cracks.

Now, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples is on the agenda for Canada as the federal government ostensibly seeks to right some past wrongs. During this moment of possible change, Denise Williams—the executive director of the First Nations Technology Council in British Columbia—sees a rare opportunity to make the digital playing field more equal for Indigenous Peoples in BC.

“The most exciting thing,” Williams told me over the phone, “is the fact that truth and reconciliation is in each of the Ministers’ mandates here in the province, and the way that the tech sector is trying to come to the table as being diverse and solutions-oriented. I think it’s very exciting to be at this intersection, at this time.”

WIlliams, 35, is Coast Salish from Cowichan Tribes on Vancouver Island. Before joining the technology council five years ago, she was involved with a range of Indigenous issues including community policing and education. But even then she was outspoken about how technology could be a part of reconciliation in Canada, too. After joining the First Nations Technology Council, Williams told me over the phone, she helped the organization pivot from trying to be a service provider and software developer itself to, as she put it, “be a convener” for stakeholders that have the resources to make things better.

Here’s what being a convener looks like: In 2018, after a successful pilot conducted in 2017, the council will fund a 12-week digital skills development program that will see more than 1,000 Indigenous people learn skills like web development and software testing. Every participant in the program will get a laptop paid for by a corporate partner that they can keep if they complete the course. “This is a common challenge,” Williams said over the phone. “Our Indigenous participants don't have access to their own laptop that can handle the software.”

Crucially, these tech partnerships also entail paid internships for people who complete the skills development program.

“We want to make sure our partners are ready to welcome Indigenous interns, and they can take advantage of our reconciliation workshops and cultural sensitivity and awareness training,” Williams said. “That way, we can begin to shape the tech sector in BC in a way that’s never been done.”

The council also offers web design services to Indigenous communities in partnership with web services company Animikii Inc. It also offers community technology planning services for communities looking to upgrade their infrastructure. Indeed, one of the reasons that the council can play an advisory role in these endeavours, instead of directly taking them on, is that Indigenous communities are already doing it themselves.

Read More: Indigenous Peoples Will Shape a More Just and Sustainable Future for Canada

There are several regional Indigenous-owned and operated internet service providers in Canada, for example, and some communities have even gone so far as to erect their own infrastructure. But change is needed on a systemic scale, and that won’t come quickly or easily.

A main obstacle to better infrastructure in Indigenous communities over the next five years, Williams said, will be the large corporate incumbents that have an oligopoly over the cables that criss-cross Canada. An unfortunate reality is that these entities seek profit, and small communities getting wired up isn’t always a huge winner, revenues-wise.

“The goal isn’t that the cost is $10,000 a month to subscribe to a Telus service—that doesn’t seem quite right either,” Williams said. “So that’s why we need to be working collaboratively to find these solutions.”

Still, if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Williams.

“Words that were spoken to me a few years ago from one of the Chiefs here was that Indigenous people are the original innovators on these territories,” WIlliams said, “having lived here for hundreds of thousands of years learning how to work responsibly with this environment, and how to innovate for the betterment of all.”

“Including Indigenous leadership and voices and worldviews in the tech sector at this really important growth stage...” she added, pausing. “We don’t even know what’s possible.”

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