"Reconciliation in the 21st Century"

Opening remarks as part of the "Reconciliation in the 21st Century" panel at the inaugural Democracy XChange conference: 

As I began to compile some thoughts for our time here together today, I reflected upon the conception of reconciliation in the 21st century. Is reconciliation in 2017 all that much different from reconciliation in 1997? The 1990s saw the release of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, a document that shared many common themes with the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released in 2015 – that the injustices of our history have yet to be fully addressed, that Indigenous peoples in this country have experienced (and continue to experience) dramatically different realities from that of non-Indigenous Canadians, and that deep and systemic change will be required to meaningfully construct a shared future built upon a foundation of respect, justice and equity.

Much has changed over the last decade (let alone the last generation), but the essence of and urgency of this work remains unchanged. Reconciliation is, and has always been, a deeply personal journey. It is one built upon relationships, which are foundational to better understanding each other, our collective histories and the opportunities that lay before us. And its necessity is real and felt every single day within our communities – as noted by the Globe and Mail last week, we live in a country in which almost half the children in Canada's foster care system are Indigenous, in which 20,000 Indigenous people lack access to clean drinking water, and in which the suicide rate among Indigenous young people ages 15 to 24 is five to seven times higher than amongst non-Indigenous youth. No iPhone app is going to change these realities.

What makes reconciliation in the 21st century distinct is its ever-increasing complexity. For as we undertake our collective journey of reconciliation, it is important to note that this work is not just about reconciling our past, but also reconciling current trajectories - our future is being actively written as we speak, in part through the lines of code that power the platforms and services we rely upon in our daily lives. In creating our digital domain, will we emphasize true equity by reflecting a diverse range of lived experiences and elevating underrepresented voices, or will we fall victim to replicating the same biases, perceptions and stereotypes that continually threaten to divide us in our physical spaces?

Eliminating the digital divide is the first step towards unleashing Indigenous innovation in the digital space. And the first step towards eliminating the digital divide is understanding its full depth and breadth:

The first component of the digital divide is connectivity:

The digital divide continues to be exacerbated through unequal access to infrastructure and skills development opportunities. While the CRTC ruled in December of last year that access to broadband internet was a basic service for all Canadians, an urban-rural connectivity divide across the country is felt even more profoundly within remote Indigenous communities. Connectivity is about so much more than Netflix and Snapchat – as noted in a recent Al Jazeera documentary on the digital divide within Indigenous communities:

“Connecting communities can have a sizeable effect on complex issues like teenage suicide, mental health or cultural preservation. The internet allows for access to improved health services, cultural resources, higher education, a wider pool of jobs, and, for those who may feel isolated, a way to expand their social network.” 

While the federal government has begun to make critical investments in infrastructure, these programs are not as far reaching or comprehensive as one might expect, perhaps best exemplified by its Connect to Innovate program, which has committed $500 million of infrastructure investments by 2021. The funding is primarily aimed at what is defined as “backbone infrastructure” (oftentimes connecting schools and hospitals), with “a portion of funding for upgrades and “last mile” infrastructure to households and businesses.” Which begs the question: much like clean water, safe homes and equitable funding for child welfare and education, how much longer do Indigenous communities need to wait for an element of our lives that so many of us take for granted?

The second component of the digital divide is power and representation:

When speaking of the digital divide, we must acknowledge that this divide does is not eliminated once a community is connected. Issues of digital literacy and skills development opportunities persist, as does broader questions and concerns over control, power and representation. I’ll address each briefly in turn.

On the issue of control, serious concerns are being raised around what NY Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo has dubbed the “Frightful 5” - a set of companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft) that have come to dominate the digital landscape as a form of digital gatekeepers - from Amazon Web Services serving as the backbone of countless websites to the necessity of marketing through Google and Facebook (which accounts for 60% of ad revenues in the United States and 50% worldwide), this growing concern over access for the population at large is one that is amplified and magnified within underrepresented and underserved communities. What does this digital dominance hold for the future of nation to nation relationships if the reach and influence of these companies is beginning to exceed that of Western nation states?

It is not merely the concern that so few companies hold so much power online, but also the fact that these dominant players fail to reflect the diversity of our communities, with a limited set of lived experiences designing platforms and products that touch all of our lives. I recently explored the diversity reports of these major players, and was saddened to see the state of the statistics – at least half of the workforce for the 5 companies identified as white, while upwards of 74% (in the case of Microsoft) were male. Of the 5, only 2 (Google and Microsoft) reported on Indigenous or Native American representation in their workforces, with both coming in under 1%. With Indigenous peoples representing the fastest growing demographic in Canada (at 4x the national average), how are we ensuring Indigenous voices are helping to shape the tools that have become so pervasive in our daily lives?

The impacts of this widening digital divide on both fronts will be increasingly felt within Indigenous communities as the pace of technological innovation continues to rapidly advance.  With upwards of 38% of the workforce to be automated by 2030 (according to a recent PwC report), we need to ensure that underrepresented and marginalized groups have equal seats at the table to determine how best to navigate this uncertain economic future. 

The Future of Indigenous Innovation

I open with these statistics and trends to paint a picture of where we are at today. In doing so I want to shed light upon the urgency of addressing these disparities, but also to reaffirm that what has constrained Indigenous peoples in the digital age is not a lack of innovation - Indigenous peoples have been innovators upon these territories since time immemorial. Instead, what has limited us is full and equitable access, limiting perceptions as to how Indigenous voices and perspectives could enrich these spaces, and a power imbalance in regards to both platforms and the content that is housed upon them.

What is incredible is that, as is the case on so many fronts, these barriers and inequities haven’t halted Indigenous innovation, ingenuity, resiliency or resistance. Indigenous Nations are taking control of their connectivity futures, as is the case with the Northern Indigenous Community Satellite Network, which connects First Nations and Inuit communities in northern Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. GIS mapping is playing an invaluable tool in land claims and environmental monitoring. Social media platforms have become powerful hubs of activism and resistance (#NODAPL being a recent and notable example), while new digital communication platforms such as Makoons Media are elevating Indigenous voices. And Indigenous-led technology firms such as Animikii in Victoria and the First Nations Technology Council are thriving.

If all of this incredible progress is being made with unequal access, imagine what could be possible if reconciliation in our digital spaces was to be meaningfully pursued. As we work to decolonize our physical spaces, we must also turn our attention to digital spaces, decolonizing current platforms and products while Indigenizing those that are just beginning or have yet to emerge. In doing so, we can empower Indigenous innovators while strengthening and enriching the dialogue we must all have around our shared future and the role of technology within it. 


Alexander Dirksen