"Reconciliation in a Digital Age"

Prepared remarks for the Public Policy Forum's Digital Inclusion Summit on February 9, 2018: 

Good morning everyone, and thank you being here to be a part of such an important conversation. I also want to thank the organizers for having me here today, and for also helping to remind this West Coaster what winter is actually like. 

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional territories upon which we are gathered here today, most recently of the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory now known as Toronto (a Mohawk word for “the place in the water where trees are standing”) has a rich history for many Nations, including the Haudenosaunee, Wendat, Anishinaabe, and Algonquin peoples. I wish to express my sincere gratitude for our ability to gather here today on these beautiful territories. 

I would also like to recognize the courage and resiliency of Survivors and their families, and wish to send love and strength to the families of the well over 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in this country. We continue to live in a country that fails to provide all women with respect, dignity and safety, with Indigenous women disproportionately impacted by violence and abuse. To the men assembled here today – we have a role and responsibility to ensure that this cycle is broken. 

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From Alexa to Siri, we are asking more questions of our devices than ever before. These soothing mechanical voices mark a far cry from the whirring tones of dial-up modems, revealing how ubiquitous technology has become in the ensuing decades. Far more than a single machine one turned to for a pixellated array of instant messaging platforms and solitaire applications, we now exist in an era in which an entire digital world is being constructed alongside our physical spaces. 

Yet as we ask more questions of our devices, I often wonder why we do not ask more questions of ourselves when it comes to the rapid advancement of technology and its impacts upon our lives. Siri can certainly tell us how long it will take to reach a point on a map, but it is up to us to determine how long it will take to shape a digital landscape that is equitable and inclusive for all. For behind the sleek glass and metal enclosures of our lithium-charged lifelines are people, with apps and programs reflections of the perspectives and understandings of their creators. 

It is with this emphasis on the people behind the platforms that I turn to the focus of my talk today - reconciliation in a digital age. It is a journey that carries with it urgency not only for Indigenous peoples, but for all of us. For in beginning to undertake a deeper reflection upon the tools and technology we have unwarily welcomed into our lives and in acknowledging the limited range of lived experiences that have created them, we can begin to have the critical conversations necessary to shape digital spaces rid of the barriers, prejudices and stereotypes that still pervade our analog existence. 

When I speak of reconciliation in a digital age, I speak of reconciliation not only as a process of reexamining the past, but as an ongoing collective journey that responds to our collective histories, our current realties and the opportunities that lie before us. Indigenous peoples were the original innovators upon the territories we now refer to as Canada, with resiliency and ingenuity ever-present forces that produced the thriving Nations we now see in spite of every possible extent to extinguish voices, communities and cultures.

Yet despite this resurgence, Indigenous peoples have yet to have full and equitable access to positions of influence and leadership in shaping the tools of tomorrow. For some, it stems from the most fundamental of barriers - while the CRTC ruled in December of last year that access to broadband internet was a basic service for all Canadians, far too many Indigenous Nations are grappling with a complete lack of connectivity, or connectivity far below the speeds which so many of us take for granted. 

Once online, Indigenous peoples are confronted with a set of dominant platforms whose power and reach have led many to question how these modern monopolies are disproportionately shaping our political, economic and social systems. In an age of nation-to-Nation relationships, what does this digital dominance hold for our future if the reach and influence of these companies is already beginning to exceed that of Western nation states? 

And it is not merely the concern that so few companies hold so much power in our digital spaces, but also the fact that these dominant players fail to reflect the diversity of our communities. Of the five dominant technology companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft), at least half of their workforces 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%. 

What is incredible is that, as is the case on so many fronts, these barriers and inequities haven’t halted Indigenous innovation, creativity, 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 and the First Nations Technology Council (who I am proud to represent here today) are demonstrating what is possible when Indigenous voices are elevated and empowered in the digital space. If all of this incredible progress is being made with unequal access, imagine what could be possible if reconciliation in a digital age was to be meaningfully pursued…

So where does one begin? And what will a sector in meaningful pursuit of reconciliation look and feel like? 

Reconciliation is, and has always been, a deeply personal journey. In this sense, reconciliation in the 21st century looks no different than reconciliation in the 20th, rooted in personal reflection and education, and built upon renewed relationships, which are foundational to better understanding each other and the world around us. For those new to the space, this includes reading the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the countless resources that have been made available online. Twitter has a vibrant community of Indigenous voices to follow and learn from, while setting up an email news alerts for Indigenous reconciliation will begin to give you a sense of current developments not only here in Canada but around the world. As you begin to explore this global movement, it is also important to remember that digital spaces are crafted on physical lands - take time to know whose territory you live and work upon, and whose Nations have been stewards of these territories since time immemorial.

Reconciliation is a lifelong journey, but as you begin to immerse yourself in the space encourage others to join you. Hosting “lunch and learn” style sessions or reconciliation workshops for staff can be a good first step in elevating your team’s awareness and understanding, which will then shape how they go about their work - I often note that reconciliation cannot be limited to certain interactions or spaces, but should instead be a lens through which you see the world, and fostering cultural competency is critical to developing this mindset. It is also in alignment to Call to Action 92, Section III, which calls upon the corporate sector to “provide education for management and staff on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations,” including skills based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.” 

From here, an organization can begin to explore how the leverage points they have around the meaningful advancement of reconciliation. Perhaps your organization already offers digital skills training for staff that could provide learning opportunities for local Indigenous youth, or your organization could provide internship opportunities for recent Indigenous graduates of technology programs. This could take the form of supporting ongoing initiatives developed by Indigenous-led organizations - in B.C., for example, the First Nations Technology Council has developed Foundations and Futures in Innovation and Technology, skills development initiatives that offer introductory and advanced training for First Nations communities across six in-demand areas of the technology sector. Support of digital skills development initiatives is in alignment with Call to Action 92, Section II, which calls upon the corporate sector to “ensure that Indigenous peoples have equitable access to jobs, training, and education opportunities in the corporate sector, and that Indigenous communities gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic development projects.” 

For those looking to deepen their commitment, a review of some of the Reconciliation Action Plans produced by such organizations as Boeing, 3M and KPMG in collaboration with Reconciliation Australia may provide a useful framework for developing a long-term strategy for your organization. RAP Plans advance organizations through four stages of growth (Reflect, Innovate, Stretch and Elevate), ensuring organizations are continually pushing themselves to go further in this space. Such deepening of commitments to reconciliation can include partnerships with Indigenous-led organizations for procurement opportunities, creating a welcoming space for Indigenous voices on your Board of Directors, or amending HR policies to include things like a cultural leave policy for Indigenous staff. 

Those involved in technology and innovation often pride themselves as being societal disruptors, actively reimagining longstanding systems, structures and approaches. In this way, I see this audience as being ideally suited to becoming champions of reconciliation. But to do so and to transform our digital landscape will require us to acknowledge that cyberspace is not a blank slate, but rather one that carries with it the imprints of each of us as the people behind the platforms. If we each commit personally to our own reconciliation journeys by increasing our education and awareness, and in turn develop teams that possess shared values around the meaningful inclusion of Indigenous voices across all aspects of our organizations, we will begin to see a sector and a society in which Indigenous innovators are actively shaping the tools of tomorrow, bringing new insights and perspectives to the products and platforms that have become invaluable aspects of our daily lives while exploring the ways in which technology can support the advancement of self-determining Indigenous Nations. And Indigenous youth will grow up interacting with a digital landscape that recognizes, respects and reflects their cultures, and will in turn know that these online experiences have been shaped by the original innovators of Turtle Island. 

This is not an abstract dream, but a reality I know that each of us assembled in this room today can work towards together, for we all have a role to play in the meaningful advancement of reconciliation. And this includes you, Alexa and Siri - learning Ojibwe, Inuktitut or Michif wouldn’t be a bad place to start. 

Thank you.

 

UPDATE: A video of my remarks may be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNZZ5ZmFwCI

Alexander Dirksen