"Reconciliation Through Indigenous Innovation"

PeaceGeeks hosted a wonderful evening of dialogue around the intersection of reconciliation and innovation, where I had the pleasure of joining Denise Williams (First Nations Technology Council) and Jeff Ward (Animikii Indigenous Technology) on stage. Here is a copy of my prepared remarks: 

 

What does reconciliation mean to you? 

As we gather here today in this 150th year of Canadian confederation, I believe this to be one of the most critical questions we must pose to ourselves as individuals and to this country. It is a question that challenges preconceived notions of our national identity, while serving as a call to action for all of us to begin to articulate our role in crafting a future of inclusivity, justice and equity. 

It has been nearly a decade since a national apology was delivered on the floor of the House of Commons to Survivors of the residential school system, and 2 years since the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Within this report were 94 Calls to Action - a rallying cry to political, economic and social institutions to begin the long road towards national healing and renewal. 

In the ensuing years changes have come, but they are not enough. Nor are the Calls to Action, for all their value within this space, a singular, comprehensive blueprint for reconciliation - it is often overlooked that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples put forth a 20-year plan to revitalize relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples two decades ago in 1996. 

We have thus reached a pivotal juncture in the reconciliation movement, where maintaining its momentum in a meaningful and sustainable way has emerged both as a cause of concern but also as a once in a lifetime opportunity to reimagine the future of this country. To do so, we must move beyond committees and commissions as the impetus for action, challenging the longstanding systems and structures that make up our daily lives. 

Which brings us to the topic of tonight’s discussion. What role can innovation and technology play in the meaningful advancement of reconciliation in Canada? I believe the opportunities and possibilities are endless, but only if the work is undertaken in a way that empowers Indigenous leaders and communities through representation, pure intention and clear vision. I want to spend a few moments addressing each in turn as a foundation for a broader dialogue this evening. 

Representation

Conversations around the interplay of innovation and reconciliation must begin with an assessment of who is seated at the proverbial table (or more appropriately, who is seated in the circle) - in order to craft tools of value, the voices of those who will ultimately embrace or reject them must be part of the design and development process. Overcoming pervasive and persistent workforce demographics in the tech sector will pose a considerable challenge - according to Google’s latest diversity report, the organization overall is 69% male and 59% white, figures that jump to 76% male and 70% white when looking only at positions of leadership within the organization. 

While true across all spaces, this focus on representation is particularly poignant within the digital domain. So many of this country’s political, social and economic structures were shaped in a time and place far different from our own and driven by a limited range of lived experiences. Armed with a keyboard and a vision, one can create a digital reality unconstrained by the biases, stereotypes and constraints of our physical world.

Intention

When assessing the efficacy of an initiative within this space, I often ask a simple question: reconciliation, for whom? A similar question must be asked of innovation and technology when incorporated into the reconciliation movement. There is a tendency amongst some Canadians to mistake allyship for aid, overlooking the resiliency, vibrancy and value that Indigenous voices bring to this country.

We must be particularly cautious of this oversight when it comes to technology - despite one’s best intentions, we run the risk of replicating ill fated forays of expert evangelism abroad. One needs to look no further than the failed attempts of Facebook and Google at “Internet for All,” which its critics have at best labelled as idealistic and at worst a form of digital imperialism.

Clear Vision

In a world of taps, swipes and clicks, it is easy to become enchanted by the lure of pixellated progress, but no app will be a panacea for reconciliation in this country. To be effective, technology must be seen as a means with which to strengthen and supplement ongoing efforts within a community.

When agency, intention and purpose are aligned, technology can play a pivotal role within the reconciliation space. And if successful, one of its powerful contributions will not be a platform or program, but a philosophy. Steve Jobs once noted that “everything around you [in the manufactured world] was made up by people - you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” Imagine if we embraced this belief, pushing past current preconceptions to actualize a bold vision for reconciliation in our communities and in this country - if we treated Canada’s democratic, legal and social systems like strings of code created by humans, how would we alter them to better reflect Indigenous ways of being and our hopes for future generations? 

As we look boldly to the future and begin to envision ways with which to deepen and sustain our commitment to reconciliation, I’d like to close my opening remarks by grounding us with a teaching shared by Justice Murray Sinclair at the inaugural Indigenous Innovation Summit: 

“Innovation isn’t always about creating new things or creating new ways of doing things. Innovation sometimes involves looking back at our old ways and bringing them forward to this new situation.”

I look forward to tonight’s conversation of both old ways and new. Thank you.

Alexander Dirksen