My Great-Grandfather Used the Grease Trails, I Use a Smartphone

Closing the digital divide can help Indigenous people achieve self-determination.

A woman with light brown skin and reddish-brown hair looks at a computer monitor.
Photo courtesy the First Nations Technology Council

My great-grandfather, Johnny David, wore many hats in our Indigenous nation. He carried the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief name Mikhlikhlekh. He was a traditional medicine man, hunter, and trapper. And, whenever the Wet’suwet’en hosted a potlatch, he travelled to neighbouring nations to invite their leaders to attend. He used the technology of his time — the grease trails, traditional trading routes that connected tribes — to deliver his messages to Indigenous leaders.

Today, I do a similar job. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a chief, medicine man, hunter, or trapper. In fact, I wouldn’t last 24 hours alone in the wilderness. I have a hard enough time navigating Walmart. But, like my great-grandfather, I am a communicator who frequently delivers messages to Indigenous nations, except I use the technology of my time: smartphones, social media, and email.

I told this story while traveling British Columbia last fall with the First Nations Technology Council, an organization that provides technology training to Indigenous peoples and works to advance digital technologies in Indigenous communities in BC. Our team spent two months asking Indigenous communities how technology could support their self-determination in eight different regions of BC. I learned technology could potentially underpin every aspect of nation-building, from cultural preservation to economic development to land claims.

I’m not a chief, medicine man, hunter, or trapper. But, like my great-grandfather, I deliver messages to Indigenous nations using the technology of my time.

Our first stop was Prince George. We landed on the outskirts of the northern city on the traditional territory of the Lheidli T’enneh Nation. During recent treaty negotiations, the nation used geographic information system (GIS) software to create maps illustrating how the nation’s clans — symbolized by animal crests — used their traditional territory historically and in the present. The map showed what the nation’s oral tradition told: Their people had been using and occupying the territory since before contact with British colonizers.

Technology could potentially underpin every aspect of Indigenous nation-building.

“We colour-coded the frogs green. We colour-coded the bears brown. We colour-coded the grouse red,” said Marvin George, who was hired by the nation to help with preparations for negotiations. “So when we printed out one [map] you could see all the different colours and the linkages from one clan to another clan through marriages.” George explained these connections were critical because they demonstrated ownership under a traditional stewardship law: When someone marries into a clan, they gain access to and responsibilities over that clan’s territory.

While technology can be used to code the past, Indigenous people landing high-paying jobs in technology also contributes to self-determination. The Council envisions Indigenous innovators thriving in Canada’s tech sector and then, one day, bringing their skills back to their communities to improve the local economy. But we’re a long way from bridging what’s become known as the “digital divide.” Across Canada, many remote Indigenous communities don’t even have access to the internet.

Even as advanced technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain, 3D printing, and augmented and virtual reality transform the global economy, roughly 75% of Indigenous communities in BC do not have access to internet fast enough to reliably download an email attachment. Meanwhile, employment growth in Canada’s tech sector has outpaced the rest of the economy at a rate of six-to-one. Nearly 1 million Canadians worked in tech in 2016 but just 2.2% of them identified as Indigenous, even though Indigenous people account for almost 5% of Canada’s population.

75% of Indigenous communities in BC do not have access to internet fast enough to reliably download an email attachment.

In Prince Rupert, Reid Skelton-Morvin — a member of the Tsimshian and Nisga’a Nations who co-founded one of the first digital marketing agencies in northwest BC — told us about the difficulties of working in a region with limited internet access. “It’s challenging for us to scale up here, because we don’t have many individuals who are trained or experienced,” he said. More Indigenous tech entrepreneurs would emerge if better internet infrastructure and tech education, including training in basic computer skills, coding, and design, was available on reserves, he added. “It can really kick off the economy.”

Increasing Indigenous representation in Canada’s fastest growing-sector is one of our organization’s central goals. As I travelled the province, I pictured a generation of young, tech-savvy Indigenous people returning to their communities to start companies or work for their nations. I also met inspiring and forward-thinking leaders, such as Darren Edgar, deputy chief of the Kitasoo Band on BC’s central coast, who see today’s challenges as an opportunity: Indigenous entrepreneurs could fill the void in digital connectivity.

“This is an opportunity to have a First Nations technology company, whether it’s through telecommunications or what have you,” said Edgar, while attending our event in Parksville on Vancouver Island. “There are so many opportunities.”

Our sessions throughout BC were also an effort to recruit more young Indigenous people to the tech sector. The Council has provided technology training to more than 200 Indigenous people since 2016 and is on pace to train nearly 1,000 students by 2021. Our grads are emerging as web developers, digital marketers, GIS and GPS mappers, and more. I told youth I met the story of my great-grandfather to highlight how we, as Indigenous people, possess gifts passed down from our ancestors.

We’ve heard that combining “First Nations” and “technology” is an oxymoron, that Indigenous culture is the past and technology is the future.

Historically, the tech space has not been welcoming to Indigenous peoples. At the First Nations Technology Council, we’ve heard that combining “First Nations” and “technology” is an oxymoron, that Indigenous culture is the past and technology is the future. But these attitudes are changing as young Indigenous people walk confidently into this rapidly changing digital world, grounded in tradition and the wisdom of their ancestors.

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