When a group of remote First Nations communities in northern Ontario launched an electronic bulletin board in 1994, it was the seed that would become Canada’s largest Aboriginal broadband network and a model network for Indigenous telecommunications of interest worldwide.
The Bulletin Board System (BBS) was meant to meet the critical need of maintaining contact with the communities’ children and help support them to stay in school while living away from home.
These fly-in communities had no high school and many of their children continuing their education at boarding schools were dropping out.
At the time many of the communities’ approximately 2,800 residents did not even have a home phone—a public payphone had to be shared among several hundred people.
In less than a decade, residents were able to access broadband services from their homes and public places like community centres and libraries.
Today, the communities coordinate with service agencies and universities to deliver an Internet high school, telehealth, telejustice, and webcasts of education and training events to residents via their Kuhkenah Network (K-Net) , a system vastly expanded from its BBS days.
The online high school offers grades 9 and 10 as well as compulsory courses for grades 11 and 12. It shares teachers among communities and is allowing students to stay home longer and maintain their support while studying toward their diploma.
K-Net is a program of the Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO), a tribal council directed by the chiefs of six First Nations communities.
Throughout K-Net’s evolution, addressing local needs has remained the prime objective, along with supporting local ownership and development through community-driven applications and community-based networks.
A terrestrial network linked to a satellite network, K-Net now connects about 70 Aboriginal communities and a number of non-Aboriginal communities in northern Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec, linking them to the world.
K-Net also interconnects to other regional networks to form a national broadband network providing videoconferencing at Aboriginal and urban sites across Canada.
Sharing knowledge, successes across the Americas
K-Net is a success story of how Indigenous communities have sought out partnerships, leveraged support, harnessed funding opportunities, and used information and communications technologies (ICT) to address their people’s critical health, education, and economic needs.
It is the kind of story that an Indigenous commission launched at the United Nations wants more people to know about.
The Indigenous Commission for Communications Technologies in the Americas (ICCTA) resulted from Indigenous people’s growing interest in ICT following the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva.
The commission was formed by the Indigenous peoples of South, Central, and North America.
The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) recently awarded ICCTA a $100,000 grant to support its development.
“ICT are critically important for many, many reasons, whether it’s for health, education, commerce, or governance,” said President Tony Belcourt from ICCTA’s head office in Ottawa.
Mr. Belcourt noted that Aboriginal people in Canada are among the leaders in the use of ICT for telehealth and tele-education.
ICT is also important to Indigenous people worldwide for building economies through e-commerce, managing their own governance, protecting rights, participating in society, and preserving their culture and language.
Canada’s Métis people, for example, have a digitized registry system to identify themselves as Métis. In a country like Ecuador, vast numbers of Indigenous people have no means of identification and cannot be put on a voters’ list. Canada’s support can help them establish their own registry system which can hopefully lead to the right to vote, Mr. Belcourt said.
And ICT as simple as teaching tools on CDs, or dictionaries and keyboards for computers and typewriters, can help in the preservation of Indigenous language.
“Those [areas] are the examples we see of Aboriginal people being successful. We want to be able to exchange that information with other people, and then we want to bring industry, governments, and NGOs into the mix as partners.”
ICCTA is in the process of building a multi-lingual portal to allow knowledge sharing. The CIDA grant will help ICCTA build capacity to move forward.
Level the playing field, and ‘they’ll be the ones to lead the way’
Two important ingredients for success are levelling the playing field for Indigenous peoples and having them take the lead.
“We’re very much determined that this be driven by Indigenous peoples and that it not be governments or other people who set up an organization for us and have us participate but they be the decision makers,” said Mr. Belcourt.
“The community should be in charge … the community needs to be respected and the people need to have the opportunity to build that capacity,” said Brian Beaton, coordinator of K-Net Services, based in Sioux Lookout, Ontario.
This means government must step in and ensure adequate and equitable infrastructure, since telecommunications companies do not have a business case for building and investing in small, isolated communities, he said.
“With the proper infrastructure, the proper support systems, and the proper resourcing, it would be a lot more level a playing field for everyone,” said Mr. Beaton, who coordinates the computer services department of the KO tribal council.
Through the new jobs in the communities as a result of K-Net, “We can then train other people, and these people then start using these tools to build their own capacity,” he said.
“We don’t have to be taken care of. You become self-sufficient once you have the infrastructure in place and you have the skills.”
The communities that created K-Net have been active in sharing their experiences with others.
Last October their telehealth staff met with a delegation from Brazil that was in Ottawa attending a telehealth conference.
K-Net hosted an online two-day international Indigenous conference in 2004 to discuss the use of ICT. Over 100 people registered from North, Central, and South America, Africa, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
KO also runs an institute that conducts research on Indigenous issues, emphasizing the impacts of ICT.
“If [Indigenous people] are given the resources and the tools, they’ll be the ones to lead the way,” said Mr. Beaton.