In conversation with three young Indigenous community leaders
We talk about the Indigenous Connectivity Summit in Alaska, digital equity, and the path forward
Much like a blackberry bramble, the Indigenous Connectivity Summit (ICS) is a sweet and scratchy combination, providing attendees with an abundance of food for thought to keep us pondering (if not hungry for more) in the weeks following. This year’s in Alaska was no exception. Like those before it, the ICS in Anchorage convened an exceptional array of Indigenous community leaders, experts, advocates, and innovators from all over who came to share their knowledge and stories with all who could join.
With no shortage of threads or themes to pick up on in the afterglow, a single upshot would be nearly impossible. So, I thought it prudent to follow up with three participants to get their general thoughts and impressions from the Summit.
The following responses are from a recent roundtable discussion I had with Brittany Woods-Orrison, summit co-host, along with Erin Knight and Kalyne Beaudry who both attended as youth scholars, thanks to a partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. Each is an expert in her own right, a young leader in her field, and no stranger to working with Indigenous communities. We are grateful to these young Indigenous women for willingly sharing their experiences with us.
(Conversation has been lightly edited for length)
How was your Summit, and what was your experience like?
Brittany Woods-Orrison, AKPIRG/Native Movement, Koyukon Dené, Dleł Taneets
“When I first learned of the ICS, I thought ‘I need to find something like this that I can replicate, or these resources and communities that I can bring to my home state [of Alaska].’ In seeing what’s been accomplished through the group and reading about it, I wasn’t sure if [the ICI] would talk to me or if I’ll be able to access this space. Once I got past that initial barrier, it’s been so amazing for me to have so much support for my work, because there’s only so many people I can reach out to for mentorship and places to ask questions for complicated situations. The Summit itself, it was so phenomenal! And to bring people together… the Native world continues to grow smaller as we get more connected. I jokingly say we’re bringing back the trade routes, but we really are! With all the scary things happening in the world, this event—and rebuilding these connections—is so important.”
Erin Knight, Senior Campaigner, Open Media, Métis Nation of Manitoba
“This was my first Indigenous Connectivity Summit. I didn’t know what to expect going in, and I wasn’t familiar with most of the organizations in attendance, and frankly I was kind of blown away. There was so much expertise in that room which I really valued the opportunity to hear from. And personally, I made so many wonderful connections with relations all over the continent, which was invaluable. It was also an honour to be a guest on the land in Alaska, in Anchorage!”
Kalyne Beaudry, Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Manitoulin
“I met a lot of great people, and I love the work you guys are doing. I was looking at this event as an educational opportunity and wasn’t disappointed. There’s a lot of folks I need to follow up with!”
What are your takeaways from the Summit?
“A few things stood out to me. One was the contracting aspect. Because my community are with Eastlink, and it’s not the best connection. So, learning about the contracting part of it is important and new to me. Because what I heard at the Summit was that [contracting, service] is sometimes not the best. And sometimes communities feel like they’re stuck in it. But the reality is, you can get out. There are options, or at least there should be other options. This really stuck with me: the need to have and explore other options, and for there to be healthy competition. This would be good for the connectivity in our community.
Another piece that interests me is communities doing connectivity on their own. I need to educate myself more on that, on how we can move in that direction. If the connection isn’t the best, why not have added competition and options. Or why not create our own? Having only one provider makes everything difficult. There are four or five reserves on [Manitoulin] island, and we have one service provider for all those communities. Seeing the models, whether it’s a community service provider or ISP, was very interesting.”
“Indigenous Peoples have such different concepts of the world that go against colonialism and capitalism. There are so many different solutions, community building ideas, and lifestyles to come from that. So much continues to be done to stop us and erase us, yet we continue to thrive and only succeed more!
So, at the Summit, it was this constant [tension] between, this is what we’re doing, this is our vision, [contrasted with] this is what we have, and this is what we’re up against. Despite the horrible odds, statistics, and situations we have to deal with – the solutions are there! They’re so much more resilient and creative and bring so many more people into the fold. The way we do this work is about making it accessible, inclusive, and doing business in a good way that honors our shared humanity and the human experience.”
“Every time we talk about digital equity or the advocacy space, it’s so obvious how much resources, including funds, knowledge about settler colonial systems, are concentrated [within] settler organizations and how much we are being left with scraps to work with, where we need to make changes for our own digital sovereignty and are working so hard to take that. And yet the knowledge of how to participate in a regulatory proceeding is concentrated in non-profits or lobby groups that are settler-run. And our ability to get that knowledge depends on the whims of these organizations to willingly share it with us. That has really motivated me—as someone who is Indigenous and who works within an advocacy organization that is settler-run—to force them to, because I have an in in that space, and making this knowledge transfer to Indigenous people should no longer be optional. We need to transfer that knowledge to Indigenous people so we can do the advocacy that we need to, to get the ability to exist in our own digital future; to plan and execute our own digital future and not to leave it up to the charity of settler organizations, but really making sure they know it’s not optional anymore.”
In either your conversations with people, or from the questions and comments you heard during the plenary, could you talk a bit about some of the themes you think emerged at the Summit?
“It was how people were talking about the internet as a resource, and how it intersects with our sovereignty and the sovereignty of our land. When connectivity comes onto the land, our people need to own and run it themselves, on their terms. I’m increasingly aware that the internet is a resource and that it’s used for so many different things, especially in emergencies and for critical communications. There’s been a lot of that lately, that is, reliance on communications and wireless technologies across Canada due to environmental and climate related disasters.”
“We need to bring more people in from different sectors. The interesting thing about the internet is that it allows anyone from any field or background to enter the work so long as you have some basic skills and mentorship. So, the process of inclusion and bringing more people in [is key], as well to Indigenize and decolonize in this space.
At the core of it, I see the ICS as a wholesome and safe space; we have the vision and behaviour(s) of doing really good work. And that’s really hard to do! In my personal life, even one unsafe person, or someone with a bad attitude can totally ruin everything. So, there are two themes for me: holding this space and solidifying it as such; and bringing in people from different sectors who are heavily impacted by this and who have more solutions, more stories to tell.”
“Social media! I know it wasn’t a big topic of the ICS necessarily, and neither was online platforms, but inside conversations I kept hearing (over and over again), “Oh! In my community Facebook is the internet,” or “Facebook runs Alaska.” – pretty sure I heard someone say that! In my community, where my family is from, Facebook is very much the internet, especially for Métis old folks; there’s nowhere else on the internet for them! This is a fascinating topic that the ICI should be aware of as future conversations come up.
When we’re thinking about, once we get connected, what are we connecting to? The platforms that for many of our people are the internet, like Facebook, are through-and-through settler-colonial institutions; there’s no decolonizing Facebook, there’s no decolonizing Twitter. If we’re going to talk about having our own Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) or Federal Communications Commission (FCC), we need to talk about having our own platforms; we need to talk about vertical and lateral integration of sovereignty, but vertical especially; from the wires all the way to the regulation, through to the platform itself that we’re communicating on. That’s a powerful thing I’ve heard, that is, about our dependence on settler-colonial platforms specifically on the internet.”
In your opinion, what needs to happen to bridge the digital divide? Or what does digital equity mean to you?
“For me, digital equity means services are provided online and we can readily access them. If you don’t have good internet in a rural community, or good devices, you can’t access those services. One of the big things I often hear about back home are the [challenges and inconveniences of] getting health cards, status cards. Sure, you have the band office, but if you could go online and do it yourself that would work a lot better! People have to take time out of their day to do stuff like that in-person, but being able to do it online means you can do it on your own time. There are other related services that First Nations and rural communities are missing out on. It’s also things that can make their lives a lot easier.
So, you have the divide because they don’t have access to the things many of us [in urban settings] may have. Digital equity means we can access the essential services we need, connect with other people and learn through the internet. Some people have a really hard time leaving home, and having good internet access will help them stay in their community and get an education.”
“I’m hoping there will be more collaboration between Tribal governments and other Native entities and businesses – I was really hoping building out broadband infrastructure would bring our people together, but it did not for how much I was anticipating. Again, I’m still dreaming of more collaboration between the different regions and Tribal entities. In Alaska, I can feel so far away from Yup’ik areas, Unangan or Inupiaq. But at the end of the day we still have connections, and our people go onto each other’s lands, and so, what would it look like to have more collaboration across all of that?”
“I’m focused on the affordability of connectivity for our peoples. Sometimes it’s still left out of the conversation, there are still communities with no connectivity – it’s hard to think about.
In tandem, the affordability and access problem need to go hand in hand. The approach we take to the physical access problem can exacerbate the affordability problem; it’s like we’re trading one problem for another. So, if we do a certain type of build out, for example, for urban Métis folks and those in Winnipeg’s North End—which are not prioritized by telcos or the government—if we focus on “what’s the fastest way to get access to them physically” and the answer might be to partner with a telco, (eventually) the result is those people pay so much more money for connectivity that they just can’t afford. Those are resources that families, individuals and communities need to go elsewhere; they can’t just be funnelled into the pockets of incumbent telecom companies. But the model the government uses in Canada is oftentimes who can connect the most people the fastest, and that goes to giant companies who are so deeply entrenched and obviously exploiting people. Therefore, the more money that comes from public funding to those private companies just further entrenches their power, establishes monopolies and ultimately rings our communities dry for money.
What I’m tackling right now and what concerns me is affordability, but it’s also about access, so we’re not exacerbating affordability problems for communities down the line that we’ll have to fix. It’s about how we can establish reliable and accessible ways for communities to divest from incumbent telecom operators in ways that are led and designed by us; we’re not implementing solutions from settler/non-Indigenous organizations but we’re leading the charge in connecting our communities and breaking our reliance on these big telecom companies. That’s the North Star I’m working on right now!”
In your opinion, what might’ve been missing or omitted at the Summit? Or what would you have liked to hear and learn more about?
“I would’ve liked to hear more about community networks, how to start the process from scratch, and what it takes to build a network. I want to learn more about what Canadian organizations exist that could help with grants and loans towards getting connected. I want to know more about how we can get access to funds. I’m interested in the business models and sustainability for community connectivity. We heard a lot about what happens after all that, but not as much about what it takes to get started.”
“We need to continue including more locals, and emphasizing a local focus, that aspect should continue to grow. Towards the end of the conference, the few of us Alaskans got together and among ourselves said, ‘There’s people who need to be in this space, who we need to continue working with and convincing to be here!’
So, part of our next point in growth is definitely around getting to communities we haven’t reached, who haven’t heard of us before. I feel like putting a local focus will help us grow so much more. The ICI and the ICS also need to branch out from ‘just’ the internet and bring these other people and topics in. That’s how I envision this work.”
“I agree with that. There’s this question around inviting a wider group of Indigenous folks who are in attendance and engaged with us, and then also protecting the safe space that it is and not opening it up too much. It’s inherently political to bring certain groups into the fold and a balance needs to be struck with who’s included. Doing so can derail safety in the space purely by bringing in the political aspect.
So, it’s this double-edged sword that requires navigation. I would love to see different groups included in this conversation. Indigenous people have different lived realities and histories that lead to different approaches to connectivity; Métis folks have their own approach to connecting Métis people! So, in a larger context of both Canada and the Northern US, we do need to talk about Métis connectivity—and specific/particular approaches to connectivity—but do so in a way that’s not going to make other Indigenous folks in the space feel unsafe.”
“I also had to think about that because we have many different entities here. We have to consider the cultural identities, Tribal governments, but then also regional non-profits, corporations, the state and so-on. So, in the process, we first need to reach out to people who are localized, then try to connect with Tribal governments. But we have to be strategic in thinking about who to invite into this space. So that’s another interesting aspect of Indigenous identity and how we bring people in. Also, we should create a system of Tribal/Indigenous regional reps. These individuals could vet who we bring in or warn us of who we shouldn’t work with, notify us of events we need to plan around and be a structured network of trusted regional partners who can help us to inform, share, and facilitate.”
What new things did you learn at the Summit?
“There is a constant newness in learning about other people’s regions, and specifically about the Canadian government, and then comparing the situation there with ours (in the US). There are some people in the ICI who are really aware of what’s happening on both sides of the made-up border.”
“I loved listening to Linnea Jackson (Hoopa Valley Public Utilities District) about her experiences and what she learned after they set up. For example, they found out only 16 people could be serviced at once on a single piece of wireless technology, but after a while they came to learn there was another company that could provide service to 200 people on a similar piece of hardware. So, if there’s a takeaway from that, one thing I need to consider is how many people will this service support? And in general, everything Linnea had to say about building and operating a network, from warranty to maintenance (that was a big one) was new to me.
I was also really interested in the talk about splicing [fiber optic cable], and how that can be an educational and career pathway, right? I think that’s something youth in our community might be interested in; when I go back home, I want to share that info with them to try and garner some interest. Fiber splicing is something very new that people in our community might be interested in exploring and pursuing. Because I don’t think people back home are considering that as a career.”
“My work is concentrated within the Canadian governmental system; I’m a policy advocate that works on the federal level of Canada’s state. Having folks from outside of that Canadian state is incredibly valuable because that’s a perspective I’m rarely if ever exposed to. And even if I am, it’s always an American government perspective, or American settler perspective, very rarely is it a Tribal perspective. The actual lived experiences of people would be the biggest learning opportunity of the ICS. So, the more of that information and knowledge sharing between peoples and regions the better.”
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