Canada’s digital divide hurts Indigenous and rural communities

By: The Hon. Marty Klyne

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Cityscape of Vancouver, British Columbia

If you’re reading this text online, chances are you have a stable, high-speed internet connection and the skills necessary to navigate the device you’re reading it on — be it a laptop, smartphone or iPad.

Unfortunately, not all Canadians get the opportunity to learn those skills. A digital divide exists in our country that separates many rural and Indigenous populations from accessing digital literacy and skills training opportunities. This gap has serious economic and social consequences for Canada.

How did we arrive here? What if this situation persists? More importantly, how can we close the gap?

First, some background information is helpful to understand digital literacy and its impact on our lives.

Digital literacy is the ability to navigate and adapt to a changing digital environment. The concept encompasses more than just learning how to use technology like smartphones and tablets. Digital literacy includes an understanding of the skills required to live and work in an increasingly digital world, with relevance to commerce, employment and governance.

Levels of digital literacy vary across Canada. Groups such as Indigenous peoples and new immigrants are generally less digitally proficient than other populations. People living in rural and remote communities also tend to have fewer digital skills.

Evidence of the digital divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people isn’t hard to find. In Saskatchewan, the number of on-reserve households with access to the CRTC’s standard for high-speed internet is just 1.7%. In Manitoba, the number is 2%.

A 2019 study by the Brookfield Institute found that Indigenous participation in tech-based occupations was lower than that of Canada’s non-Indigenous population. This has wide-reaching implications: a lack of Indigenous workers in these jobs means fewer Indigenous workers in education, research, finance and telemedicine. This gap also has implications for effective self-governance and partnerships in areas like resource development.

Why does this digital divide exist? There are many reasons, both basic and structural. For example, lack of access to fast, reliable broadband internet in many Indigenous communities has made it extremely difficult for people living in those communities to take advantage of digital literacy and skills training opportunities. The technology simply isn’t available.

Other reasons are more systemic: colonialism, systemic racism and the multi-generational legacy of residential schools have prevented Indigenous people from realizing their full economic potential. In a world where the digital economy is growing and constantly changing, that means falling further and further behind.

These socioeconomic barriers haven’t disappeared, but they’ve increasingly moved online. If this divide persists, another generation of Indigenous youth will be denied jobs and opportunities that require digital literacy. This will perpetuate Canada’s sad record of impeding Indigenous prosperity.

All Canadians bear the cost of unrealized economic potential. A report by RBC suggests that if Indigenous populations were empowered to participate in our economy at the same level as non-Indigenous workers, Canada would see an additional $67 billion in GDP. That’s an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

So how do we close the gap?

To start, the federal government must collaborate with other levels of government, industry and Indigenous partners, and continue to provide investment and support for initiatives that enhance digital literacy for Indigenous people, as well as for other under-represented groups.

Investment and support must achieve equitable broadband services for rural, remote and Indigenous communities, as well as training and skill-building programs to empower these communities to thrive in the digital economy.

Organizations such as Canada Learning Code have noted that Canada has not adopted a national strategy for teaching digital literacy or computer science skills. Creating such a strategy would go a long way to closing the gap. The Government of Canada’s Digital Literacy Exchange Program is a good start, but a national strategy is needed.

The digital economy is here to stay and closing the gap for Indigenous communities is a critical component of economic reconciliation and Canada’s future prosperity. We all stand to benefit from doing the right thing.

Senator Marty Klyne represents Saskatchewan in the Senate.

A version of this article was published in the January 18, 2023 edition of The Hill Times.

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