Bridging the Digital Divide in Rural Communities

Future Skills Need to be a Blend of Tech and Tradition

Why It Matters

With practically every job now, and certainly in the future, requiring digital literacy and proficiency in technology, the lack of tangible resources and infrastructure to support Indigenous students in the acquisition of digital skills is particularly consequential.

It is hard for most of us to imagine what it would be like without access to internet, a computer, or a cellphone. The majority of Canadians, and especially youth, depend on, live, and thrive on connectivity.

This isn’t the case for a significant portion of Canada’s Indigenous populations living in remote and rural areas. Even though our Indigenous population is one of the fastest growing in Canada, there is a persistent “digital divide”—that is, a lack of internet connectivity and digital technologies—between our rural and Northern communities, and urban and southern communities.

Outside of the lack of infrastructure, there are often significant cultural barriers for Indigenous youth in acquiring skills in digital technology in the mainstream education system. Indigenous ways of learning and knowing are known to be more practical, hands-on and experiential, and more effective in cooperative rather than competitive settings.

Yet, few schools have the funding, resources, culturally relevant pedagogy and practices, and educators with appropriate knowledge and expertise to provide enough of this kind of learning to Indigenous youth.

Equal access to education that honours and protects traditional language and culture is one of the key recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. Indigenous people are our country’s earliest and most ingenious innovators and we need their voices and perspectives present in every sector in our economy. It is imperative that Canada takes action to ensure our growing population of Indigenous youth are not left behind.

So how can we effectively bridge the gap between tech and critical cultural tradition in Indigenous communities?

Throat singing to coding. Actua works on STEM projects with hundreds of Indigenous communities.

We do this by creating opportunities for Indigenous youth to participate in an environment where Indigenous traditional ways of knowing are honoured and celebrated through sharing circles, ceremonies, and teachings from elders. This helps to ensure that STEM learning opportunities are contextualized and provided in ways that align with Indigenous ways of learning and knowing.

Social impact leaders can also address the gap by removing access and cost barriers for youth to participate in digital skills programs. At Actua, we deliver all programs in partnership with local community leaders, educators, elders and parents. We also ensure that programs are delivered whenever possible by Indigenous instructors and mentors. There is a hands-on approach, so that students can learn the basics of coding and how to design and build apps.

Participants report leaving camps and workshops with an increased sense of self-confidence and pride having constructed relevant and complex technological prototypes. One of my favourite activities is a coding project where we have Inuit youth recording throat singing notes that they then convert into pieces of code. They put together these sounds into code-created music that they can then share widely with friends, family and the world.

Our future economic and social prosperity will be greatly enhanced with the active leadership and engagement of Indigenous perspectives in science and technology. This starts by making sure all Canadian youth are equipped with the technology skills and resources to solve the problems they care about.