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Reconciliation in a digital age

Will a more equitable physical world translate into a fairer online
space for Indigenous communities? In this interview, Alexander
Dirksen reflects on reconciliation efforts in Canada and where they intersect
with debates around digital access, privacy and representation.

By: /
16 August, 2018
Various First Nations walk to honour residential school survivors in Vancouver, British Columbia, June 11, 2015. REUTERS/Ben Nelms
John Woodside
By: John Woodside

Freelance journalist

Reconciliation efforts are underway to various degrees across Canada, but meaningful reconciliation, as many advocates say, requires more action still. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada published 94 calls to action meant to guide governments and communities in shaping policy to address the enduring traumas of the residential school system. But, of the 94 recommended measures, only a handful have been completed, and work has yet to begin on some of the more challenging recommendations, such as implementing Indigenous justice systems, adopting Indigenous legal principles for title claims, or creating and maintaining records on child deaths at residential schools.

While there are plenty of issues in the physical world that need attention, from boil water advisories to inequitable funding for Indigenous child welfare, the digital world is an important space for reconciliation, too. For example, digital tools are being developed to revitalize some Indigenous languages and there are activists fighting for better access and representation in the digital world. With many new policy challenges to address in light of the internet’s increasing impact — including a proposal for a digital bill of rights — a better understanding of how the digital world intersects with reconciliation efforts is essential. 

With this in mind, OpenCanada spoke with Vancouver-based Alexander Dirksen, who describes himself as “a proud Métis policy wonk” and has worked with the First Nations Technology Council, an Indigenous-led organization aimed at ensuring equitable access and supporting communities on their path to self-determination, and Reconciliation Canada, an organization facilitating dialogue on reconciliation efforts across Canada.

What does reconciliation mean in a digital age?

We’re in the midst of an incredible period right now where reconciliation as a movement is really starting to take hold across this country. What I see as the next natural evolution of that is really moving from a place where reconciliation is an act or behaviour, such as offering a territorial acknowledgement at the start of an event, to a place where reconciliation is a way of being for all Canadians — where we start to see everything that we do through a lens of reconciliation and decolonization. 

Indigenous peoples are the original innovators on these territories and continue to be at the forefront of envisioning what is possible moving forward. So when we talk about reconciliation [in a digital age], it’s important to acknowledge and respect this — that reconciliation is not just about where we are but where we’re going. When we talk about nation-to-nation relationships, when we talk about reconciliation being the foundation for the next 150 years of this country, and when we look out to the next 150 years as being an increasingly digital world, how do we ensure that Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of these conversations?

What barriers to access currently exist for Indigenous communities when it comes to digital technology?

You’re starting to see right now in the European Union some stringent data protection laws coming into effect, and as a result, you’re seeing bigger conversations emerge around data sovereignty. Where is our citizens’ data going? Who has access to it? What is it being used for? Within the context of nation-to-nation relationships it’s an important consideration as well. 

Indigenous nations who want to know where the data of their members is going, that it’s not being sent to a data farm outside of Palo Alto or overseas — they should have the same right as any other nation in asking those important questions. We’re just starting to have conversations around citizens’ rights online (a digital bill of rights, so to speak), and I think it’s really important that Indigenous voices are at the table for those conversations.

“Once you are one step outside of the white majority that is crafting experiences online, the digital world is not a neutral space, and it is certainly not a safe space for a number of voices.”

How does data sovereignty fit into the larger fight for Indigenous sovereignty?

When we talk about access there are a couple of things to consider, the first being access in its most basic form — access to these technologies. There’s already a rural-urban divide when it comes to connectivity, one that’s even more exacerbated in some remote Indigenous nations. 

But it’s not just about laying fiber and getting Indigenous peoples online, it’s about recognizing Indigenous rights and agency when it comes to how those decisions are being made. We’re seeing some Indigenous nations running their own ISPs [internet service providers], others are putting out competitive calls for proposals to connect their nations, and I think that’s really important.

But once online, questions of access persist, because it’s about full and equitable access. So we need to look critically at who is shaping the platforms that power our lives. If you look at all of the major tech companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft — not only are the majority of their workforces white and male, but when you really start to break down their diversity numbers we see that Indigenous peoples represent a very, very small percentage of those workforces. And then you look at how much content online is written by Indigenous voices (and smaller still, the percentage of content written in Indigenous languages) — there are so many voices missing from these conversations. 

Lastly is all of the stigma, stereotypes and racism that continue to confront Indigenous peoples in our physical spaces. This is often exacerbated online because you not only have the same issues of inaccurate or incomplete reporting, but then you also have comment boards and news feeds, spaces that have been hostile to a wide range of communities and voices (LGBTQ2S+, black, Indigenous, people of colour, and far too many others). Once you are one step outside of the white majority that is crafting experiences online, the digital world is not a neutral space, and it is certainly not a safe space for a number of voices. 

What do you make of the recent push for a digital bill of rights in Canada?

I think first, before we step into the digital space, it’s really important to note that when it comes to citizen rights in the physical space we still don’t have full equity and equality across Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. Look at the continued fight for full and equitable funding for Indigenous child welfare in this country, or boil water advisories. We don’t have equitable rights for all Canadians, and I think it’s important to begin by acknowledging that before having a conversation around digital rights.

As we start to have conversations around digital rights as a country we are simultaneously beginning to explore what a post-Indian Act future could look like, and I think it’s important that these conversations — conversations around the full realization of Indigenous rights — shape and influence those conversations. It’s really important that we recognize that a lot of these principles that we’re starting to explore deeply in the physical space, such as nation-to-nation relationships, really need to be part of the conversation as things shift online. 

What role can the internet play in advancing Indigenous rights?

Indigenous peoples are doing incredible work in digital spaces despite many Indigenous peoples facing this digital divide. But when we’re talking about how we really decolonize digital spaces, it really comes down to providing full and equitable access. It’s important for technology companies to think critically about how they are engaging meaningfully with Indigenous nations. It’s important to make sure that Indigenous peoples have spaces online in which they are able to lead and shape those conversations, and do so in a safe space. CBC Indigenous had to make the decision to close its comment section because of some of the comments on some of the articles, so how do we create a space particularly where Indigenous youth can really go and engage with each other and with the world, free of online harassment and racism? 

I think it’s important to remember that just as we move fluidly between physical and digital spaces in our daily lives, and those interactions shape and influence each other, so too will efforts to move beyond rhetoric and push for greater equity amongst all Canadians in our physical world — this will naturally translate into digital spaces as well. The more that we as a country become aware and acknowledge and educate ourselves on these issues, this in turn will shape the kinds of platforms we create that could come to play a huge role in increased education, action and change. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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