Let’s bring broadband development to the North
Many of Canada’s Indigenous communities are remote. They are fly-in communities in the northern parts of the provinces or across the territories. There is an opportunity for government and industry to aid in reconciliation through linking these communities, where economically feasible, to broadband.
There isn’t an obvious catalyst for economic development. It can be too far north for agriculture or forestry. Prospects for education and healthcare can be poor. Economic opportunities are generally limited to servicing government or infrastructure, unless there happens to be a mineral or petroleum deposit nearby. Even then, there may not be an opportunity for long-term economic sustainability. The Residential Schools legacy has hit the communities hard. Some have become despondent at the loss of their ancestral language, connection and purpose.
Technology represents a chance for these communities to make their lives better. In particular, hooking remote communities into high-speed Internet can have a profound impact on economic growth. According to the World Bank, there is a 1.21% increase in per capita GDP in high income economies for every 10% increase in broadband penetration. Broadband can make businesses more efficient and increase labour productivity.
Northwestel, the Bell telco subsidiary, has recently lit a new fibre connection from southern Canada along the Mackenzie River to Inuvik in the Mackenzie Delta on the Arctic Ocean. There is discussion of running a line along the Dempster Highway from the southern Yukon to connect into Inuvik. Communities along the route will be hooked up to broadband Internet for the first time. But the benefits can be much more than just Netflix.
E-Commerce: Suppliers of northern goods and services can access a wider customer base with broadband. For example, the Tlicho Store of Rae-Edzo (just north of Yellowknife) is able to sell through their colourful website a broad array of hand crafted items, like traditional beaded gloves and moccasins. Entrepreneurs are able to maintain traditions while earning a living.
Language and education reconciliation: Indigenous languages have been nearly wiped out by the Residential School experience where students were forbidden to speak their own languages. For example, the Gwich’in language of the Mackenzie Delta is, according to UNESCO, endangered, with only 400 native speakers remaining. But through technology, there is hope. The new generation is showing a renewed interest in their ancestral languages. For example, 23-year old Jacey Firth of Inuvik, Northwest Territories has recently launched #SpeakGwichinToMe, a social media campaign to reinvigorate interest in her ancestral language of Gwich’in. She modeled her initiative on a similar campaign for the Sami people in Scandinavia. Gwich’in youth are feeling more positive about themselves, and Gwich’in throughout the Mackenzie Delta have jumped on board her initiative. Similarly, through a broadband connection, northern communities can reach out to the world and share their cultures and values, while also bringing world class distance learning into the communities.
Healthcare: Often in northern communities there are no doctors and there may not be a full-time nurse. Individuals are flown out of the community for treatment down south, particularly for specialist care. With greater broadband connections and investment from government, remote communities can benefit from telemedicine.
Broadband has the power to improve Indigenous lives in the north and help communities heal and grow. Initiatives such as Northwestel’s Inuvik fibre line are aiding in Indigenous reconciliation.
In 2017, the Arctic Economic Council published Arctic Broadband: Recommendations for an Interconnected Arctic, which highlights the opportunities for northern communities.
Geordie Hungerford is a securities lawyer in Vancouver and a member of the Gwich’in First Nation. As a member of the Arctic Economic Council and its telecommunications working group, he co-authored the paper.