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Joseph QuesnelImproved technology may be the key to improving Indigenous communities in remote regions.

Perhaps the next stage in Indigenous reconciliation is a form of digital reconciliation that helps bring these communities much closer to the mainstream economy and society through technology.

In fact, observers are seeing the potential of technology intended to assist mainly isolated First Nation communities in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The relative ease with which our society has adapted to a high-technology, low-personal-contact environment shows how much we can adapt the newest technologies to improve the quality of life in the most remote of First Nations communities.

In mid-March, it was revealed that a southern Ontario-based business specializing in drone technology was in discussions with the federal government to review existing regulations affecting drones. Many see in drones the potential to deliver medical and pharmaceutical supplies to various communities without personal contact.

In November 2017, the company Drone Delivery Canada partnered with Moose Cree First Nation – an isolated community near Moose Factory in northern Ontario – to bring drone deliveries to the remote reserve community. Goods such as mail, food and medical supplies were delivered by drone.

Development of the company’s delivery system is progressing. It received its second U.S. patent in late April, indicating that the company had improved its proprietary takeoff and delivery system.

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Access to reliable drone technology can reduce the cost of transporting goods – including critical medical supplies – to these communities. Moreover, Indigenous entrepreneurs can tap into drone technology to deal with the wider economy at a much-reduced cost.

For some situations, such as companies needing access to mining sites, reliable all-weather roads or rail networks are essential. But for areas where drones may effectively be deployed, the government may opt against permanent infrastructure. This could result in significant savings, meaning funds could be diverted to the effort to improve access to technology.

Enhanced technology can improve education and healthcare on isolated reserves. Most remote First Nations aren’t located near post-secondary institutions, so good communications infrastructure can better facilitate access to distance learning.

Mainstream communities have known the potential of online learning through university and college courses for a while. However, the COVID-19 outbreak has taught us how easily post-secondary institutions can adapt and move to online platforms.

These same institutions can adapt college, university and trades education for isolated First Nations. Many living in these communities value their community and family connections, and these kinds of online opportunities will allow them to remain in their communities and take care of the community’s needs.

Of course, for many in these more isolated communities, access to a stable Internet connection is still an issue. The federal government must continue its effort to provide the best fibre optic Internet connectivity to these communities. The government should also work with private providers to improve cellphone service to these communities.

Improved technology is revolutionizing healthcare for these communities by providing teleconferencing with medical specialists, as well as remote patient monitoring. Pregnant mothers have been helped through conferencing with midwives and doctors, as well as specialists.

Addiction is also a significant problem in many of these communities and many of those affected have received online intervention help.

All these important opportunities, of course, depend on reliable Internet connections.

Clearly, next-generation technology can vastly improve the standard of living for reserves, as well as empower Indigenous entrepreneurs.

The federal government should only provide necessary infrastructure and let the private sector do what it is best at. Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada should provide significant space to private companies to work directly with First Nation and Inuit leadership in allowing technology to improve these communities. 

Digital reconciliation must become the wave of the future.

Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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