The Digital Divide – How COVID-19 Has Affected Indigenous Populations With Limited Internet and Technology Options

According to recent statistics, 96% of Canadians have access to the internet. Compared with the United States, where 10% of the population lacks a connection, this sounds like quite an achievement. However, the fact that so many Canadians have Internet access does not reflect the current realities many people face when trying to access the country’s privatized telecommunications industry. 

This is especially true for Indigenous peoples. Across Canada, many Indigenous communities face challenges to Internet access, fighting much harder for basic inclusion as business, education, health, social interaction, and basic necessities move online.

Internet Issues, Infrastructure Issues

The COVID 19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the digital divide which threatens to worsen geography and the number of Indigenous communities in remote and rural regions  affected the internet access of many Indigenous peoples. In 2016, it was recorded that roughly 60% of Indigenous peoples lived in predominantly rural areas.[1] For Canadians living in the North, where Aboriginal people make up the majority of the population[2], the internet access rate of any kind is only at 79%. [3]

Because the internet is available doesn’t mean it’s quality or good enough for regular usage. In rural parts of the country, only 40.8% of internet users have access to broadband internet.[4] In any case, access is not the same as affordability; in Nunavut, the least expensive service is much more expensive than the cheapest broadband anywhere else in the country. Even still, the capital of Iqaluit will not see a fibre internet connection until 2023 – and that’s if the necessary funding goes ahead.[5]

Many parts of First Nation reserves across the country have no telephone landlines, let alone broadband internet access. Even the available mobile service is patchy at best.[6] At a time when the internet is important for both education and work, the cost to bring broadband infrastructure to par with the rest of the country is seen as too high, pricing many communities out of the high-quality access they need.

COVID-19 And The Importance Of Equitable Internet Access

Compared to the other infrastructure problems faced by First Nation communities, the internet might not seem like a problem. But COVID-19 has shown that when people don’t have equal access, they lose the same opportunities. Remote learning is now crucial to getting a quality education, but poor internet connections – or a lack of a connection in the first place – are holding many Indigenous children behind their peers.

This is already clear in Northern Ontario. When Canadian students are learning on Zoom, high school students attending the Matawa Education and Care Centre in Thunder Bay are forced to talk to their teachers over a landline and get their lessons via fax. In many communities, there are few other avenues, because if a coronavirus outbreak does occur among the student population, the school systems can’t always send them home. It’s a precautionary measure for First Nation communities who are already more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.[7]

A lack of internet also affects those looking for work. COVID-19 has led to many layoffs, and the internet had become one of the only ways to find and apply for jobs. This lack of resources is one of the reasons why unemployment is already higher in Indigenous communities than the population at large.[8] Even the transition to working from home means a greater need for high-speed internet, but this poses another disadvantage for rural homes that cannot access a connection to telecommute.

The inclusion of Indigenous voices on important issues can’t be accomplished if Canada doesn’t work to close the connectivity gap. The plans must be done in coordination with Indigenous governments, letting them lead any project or policy that may affect their communities or land. Without access to broadband, Indigenous peoples will continue to be left behind.

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