Social Software and First Nations Communities in Canada

A sign in a  window reads: Public internet access site Canada

A public internet access site on a first nations reserve in Canada.

Breezy access to broadband Internet connections and wireless networks gives the majority of Canadians the opportunity to access social software. Too often we take for granted this ability to reach out to friends and family for advice, social interaction, and information. Rural and remote First Nations communities face many struggles and inequalities—information poverty and isolation is just one serious threat to their health and happiness. In the future, social software may offer solutions to harness the sharing power of social software to support cultural resilience, combat isolation, and offer information and advice for living a healthy life. However, there are barriers to using social media and real problems with past social software initiatives that have been targeted at First Nations.

Social software could be used to foster cultural resilience. Past projects supported by government funding include: video podcasts by elders of traditional storytelling and songs (Dearelders.ca, n.d.), an Oji-Cree dictionary, and elder visitations through videoconferencing. Efforts to preserve languages like the website Indigenous Tweets (indigenoustweets.com) which counts and archives tweets in different languages can help minority language speakers find each other. First Nations social media users are already celebrating and practicing their culture by posting photographs and stories, and accessing art and music (Molyneaux, 2012). Targeted efforts to capture their stories, art, and perspectives could play a large role in preserving and sharing First Nations language traditions, and spirituality.

Social media also has the potential to combat the isolation that comes with living in small, remote settlements. It offers social capital-building activities that are especially important during harsh winters where travel is difficult. Social media can support active communication and continuous learning year round. A crucial need that could be filled by social software is better access to health information and counseling. Nationwide, one of the top 5 reasons that people go online is to access health information (Rempell, 2013). However many First Nations people lack the infrastructure, digital literacy, or health literacy skills required to get health help online. In a 2013 survey, the overwhelming majority of respondents did not feel confident to locate reliable information online (Rempel, 2013). Instead, they relied on friends and TeleHealth for trustworthy advice. With greater training in foundational digital literacy skills, first nations communities will be empowered to live healthier lives.

Another barrier to accessing social software is a lack of infrastructure. Higher-than-average costs because of low population density and a lack of population to recover the costs of physical infrastructure development means that companies have had little incentive to extend their reach to rural First Nations communities (Fisel & Clemens, 2012). A map of ). “Connectivity for Aboriginal and Northern Communities in Canada” (Government of Canada, 2012) reveals many communities with slow dial-up internet, or no connectivity at all.

Current social software platforms for first nations leave much to be desired. Myknet.org was launched in 2000 as part of the Kuh-ke-nah Network (K-Net)(Fiser & Clement, 2012). An earlier study of MyKnet recorded 30 000 registered users with 25 000 active accounts, mostly in Northern Ontario (Budka, et al., 2009). This number is significant portion because the total population here is 45 000 (Budka, et al., 2009). A recent survey found that Facebook has since replaced Myknet.org as the main social media network (Budka, 2012)). Reported reasons for this include: outdated and limited technical features, no capacity for IM or chat, people sending hate messages and swearing in private message boxes, and the lack of content control that allows for obscene content posted on homepages (Budka, 2012). However, Myknet.org is not a dead site by any means and is still used for creating and maintaining online homepages.

Social media attempts targeted at First Nations have failed to stand the test of time and never take root in their communities. Internet initiatives could be made more sustainable by creating equal and open partnerships between funders and communities. Local input for policies, project design, implementation, and community needs are necessary (O’Donnell et al., 2010). Advocacy and lobbying for funding beyond projects end dates is also a crucial aspect of building more effective social networks for First Nations.

While further research must be conducted to understand cultural attitudes towards social media use amongst First Nations, I foresee that social software can make a positive impact. Our society’s increasing reliance on social media for information, communication, entertainment and artistic expression threatens to deepen the digital divide suffered by First Nations communities. There is a need for self-sufficient and well-designed social software to serve the unique cultural, language, and information needs of First Nations people.

References

Fiser, A., & Clement, A. (2012). “A Historical Account of the Kuh-Ke-Nah Network: Broadband Deployment in a Rural Canadian Aboriginal Context”. Connecting Canadians: Investigations in community informatics. Edmonton: AU Press. Retrieved from http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120193.

Budka, P., Bell, B.I., Fiser, A. (2009). MyKnet.org: How Northern Ontario’s First Nation Communities Made Themselves At Home on the World Wide Web. Journal of Community Informatics 5(2). Retrieved from http://ci journal.net/index.php/ciej/article/view/568/450. ____. (2012).

Report on the MyKnet.org and Facebook Online Survey, April December 2011. Retrieved from http://meeting.knet.ca/mp19/course/view.php?id=7. Government of Canada. (2012).

Connectivity for Aboriginal and Northern Communities in Canada. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Retrieved from http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1352214337612/1353504776242.

Indigenous Tweets. (2013) Retrieved from http://indigenoustweets.com/. Kisiku’k Wklusuwaqnmuow. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://dearelders.ca/.

Molyneaux, H., O’Donnell, S., Kakekaspan, C., Walmark, B., Budka, P., Gibson, K. (2012). Community Resilience and Social Media: Remote and Rural First Nations Communities, Social Isolation and Cultural Preservation. Paper for the 2012 International Rural Network Forum, Whyalla and Upper Spencer Gulf, Australia, 24-28 September.

Myknet.org. Retrieved from http://myknet.org/.