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Wiring BC's Native Villages

How the internet is changing life in First Nations communities.

By Kendyl Salcito 8 Jun 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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Opportunities at fingertips.

This year, the internet saved a child's life.

It's a striking contrast to the reports of web sites luring kids into child pornography or helping gang members plot murders. It's the same internet that Vancouverites are using to communicate, read news, work, and sometimes commit crimes, but for the First Nations community, it's a necessity on a much more profound level.

The First Nations Summit Chiefs, upon creating the First Nations Technology Council in 2002, declared the internet a crucial element of life, as vital as clean water or community land. They mean it.

The little girl who was saved, a member of the Lake Babine Nation, was still an infant, ill from birth, and hours from a medical facility. A doctor only visited the community every few months, and the child could not wait. Desperately in need of medical attention but unable to fly a doctor to the village, the community set up a tele-health system over broadband internet. The doctor, through cyberspace, offered an initial diagnosis and referred the child to a specialist. The specialist discovered a hole in her heart. The community saved the child and hundreds of dollars in airfare using cyber-health.

Broadband in the bush

The FNTC planned, orchestrated, and began implementing the installation of broadband in native communities about a year and a half ago. They gained provincial support and Telus's service so quickly that they are already brainstorming how to fully use the internet they are acquiring.

The federal government was supposed to kick in $10 million for the project, an amount now in doubt under Harper's Conservatives. Regardless, the B.C. Liberals have promised $44 million to rewire homes with no phones, villages near the Yukon, and five-house communities miles from highways, plus promised up-to-date computers for every interested family with a grade-school child.

But a broadband connection doesn't mean downloading the latest Bedouin Soundclash album or "messengering" a friend who lives down the street. For the aboriginal communities that are being wired, internet means school, family, health-care and job opportunities.

"For kids in these communities, school stops at grade eight," explains Program Director Sue Hanley. "To keep going, they'd have to go to boarding schools." Those schools, far from home, family and their communities, are often extremely lonely places. "There's a general acceptance that when kids leave the communities…some of them get into serious trouble and never go back [to their families]." Some of them, she noted, contributed to the exorbitant suicide rate among young aboriginals.

First Nations leaders think keeping kids in the community -- educating and mentoring them -- might stem some social problems.

And keeping the kids in their communities could also improve upon the level of education provided by distant boarding schools. High-level physics courses are now available online, and bright aboriginal students who choose to stay in their villages, Hanley is convinced, have the drive to take online classes and strive towards university.

Wired for jobs

Parents, largely, already see the importance of a high school diploma, particularly as few of them have one. Of the 170 communities that responded to an FNTC questionnaire, 100 per cent said adults would seek a high school equivalency degree if one were offered online. "There's this general recognition with everybody that they've got to get their grade 12 if they want to work." Forestry, oil and mining companies have started requiring a high school education as a prerequisite for employment.

The FNTC has also recently begun a pilot program to educate 20 First Nations students as computer technicians. They will split the duration of the three-month training program between their home villages and the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology in Merritt. By the time they complete a follow-up three-month fieldwork session, their communities might be ready for full- or part-time computer technicians. The probability is high, as less than 30 of the 203 First Nations have tech support at present.

The primary focus of the FNTC, at its outset, was "directly related to merging the socio-economic gap" between the native communities and urban centres, says First Nations Summit spokesperson Kevin Ward. But the internet has a capacity far beyond the one-way exchange -- from cities to villages -- that the goal suggests. As such, the FNTC modified its mandate in 2004 to include initiatives for native culture and language restoration and preservation. Communities can share information within their own ranks, passing down information about their heritage. But another important use of the internet might still be overlooked.

Cyber-visit to Turtle Island

Some of the villages being wired were until now as isolated from other First Nations as from doctors and higher-level teachers. To foresee what broadband has to offer the entirety of B.C.'s native population, one need only look at the macrocosm that already exists.

It is called the Turtle Island Native Network (TurtleIsland.org), created in 1998 by Bob Kennedy. The web site is "an independent, Native-owned and -operated news and information service." Since "Turtle Island" includes all of North America, native groups from south of the 49th parallel also use the site as a hub, contributing to the average two million hits the site gets each month.

Turtle Island Native Network has a forum page where aboriginals post essays, ideas and concerns. Chief Tommy Alexis of the Tl'atz'en Nation posted an essay on clean water issues on the afternoon of May 22. By 9:00 p.m. on May 30, it had been viewed 3250 times. Other communities facing water pollution problems now know that they are not alone. Maybe one of the communities new to the web will learn for the first time that other First Nations have similar land-rights issues, or water-quality issues. It is possible that isolation will no longer disempower nations.

Bugs in the system

But the system's potential also reveals the bumps in its path to success, not the smallest of which is communication itself. Kennedy tried recently to contact the FNTC, hoping to link up his pre-existing web site with their foreseeable plans. His e-mail bounced back with a message that the address was no longer functioning. Similarly, the phone number listed on the FNTC web site is incorrect, rendering the council largely inaccessible to the curious and concerned. Kennedy fears that the FNTC, like many "organizations, native or not," might be "technology-rich and wise, but communications-challenged."

Hanley has noted that many natives -- even four years after the council's creation -- have no idea there is an initiative to bring broadband across the province. She also noted that the faulty phone number has been on her to-do list, but she's too swamped to breathe down her web-designer's neck to fix the error. At present, she has very little help orchestrating the wiring of hundreds of villages (all the communities with more than four permanent dwellings). Given that as many as 15 per cent still lack basic internet and telephone wiring, let alone road access, her job is enormous. The important details -- like collaborating with the Education Council, the Health Council, and the native community itself (like TurtleIsland.org) -- are sometimes beyond her over-extended reach.

Also currently out of reach is the federal government's promised $10 million. The Liberal government had promised the funding, and the Conservative minister of aboriginal affairs calls himself "the Converted," in terms of supporting the FNTC's initiative, but Prime Minister Harper indicated his stance on B.C.'s native issues when he cut the Kelowna Accord from the federal budget last month. The FNTC needs that cash to finish wiring the communities that still need broadband.

Schools, Hanley noted, were generally doing fairly well at updating to current internet standards because Industry Canada's First Nations school program funded internet connectivity in schools. Currently, however, the IC program is "on hold," courtesy of the change in government.

Kendyl Salcito is on staff at The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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