Standing at the tiny ferry terminal in the Vancouver Island town of Chemainus, Penelakut Island appears to be almost within throwing distance. The island is separated from Vancouver Island by only a seven-kilometer span of water in the Salish Sea, but, until recently, the digital divide was vast.
The island is inhabited exclusively by approximately 700 members of Penelakut Tribe and, despite its close proximity to Vancouver Island, is entirely free of commercial enterprise. The sense of community is strong and there are stunning ocean and mountains views from almost any spot on the island. As in so many First Nation communities, however, Penelakut has a difficult history from which its people are working hard to recover: from 1906 to approximately 1975, Kuper Island Residential School operated on the island. The children who were forced to attend faced hunger and abuse of all types as well as attempts to annihilate their language and culture. The shadow of this past will not retreat quickly, but in speaking with community members, there is a sense of calm, gentle confidence and a commitment to the island as home. The community-run daycare is bright and airy with fresh paint and an expansion in the works. Daycare workers’ faces light up as little ones arrive and receive hugs – parents are able to trust that their children will be properly cherished and cared for.
Walking through the island’s streets, you can see small satellite dishes attached to most homes; these dishes were previously the only source of home internet access: a 6 megabits per second connection. As of December 2018 though, Pathways to Technology funded and facilitated Penelakut’s connection to TELUS’ fibre optic network and brought high-speed internet to the island. Penelakut’s band office, elementary school, adult learning centre, daycare and health centre are now able to connect and subscribe to TELUS’ PureFibre high-speed internet services, including packages with speeds up to 750 megabits per second. People are optimistic about the many positive changes this will bring.
Benefits and Opportunities
Band office receptionist Kelly Aleck is in the process of redesigning Penelakut’s website so that it can be more useful and informative for community members. She’s also revamping the Nation’s Facebook page. In the past, it was too cumbersome to do either of these things effectively with the low-speed connection. Having returned to live in her home community of Penelakut 1.5 years ago, Kelly recalls how, when she lived off the island, she felt disconnected and out of touch with the community. Now, Penelakut members who live elsewhere will have a real portal into the community and a way to stay informed. Being back in Penelakut, Kelly relishes the quiet but is also excited that high-speed internet will allow her to continue developing her home-based business. The business requires ongoing training via video tutorials that are near-impossible to view with a 6 megabits per second connection. Access to high-speed internet will enable her to continue growing her business and thriving in her home community.
Kelly’s story is compelling as it speaks to the possibilities that high-speed internet brings to First Nation communities: a way to stay connected even when in a different physical place, and to perhaps eventually feel the pull to return home where remote work is now an option.
Penelakut’s educators, administrators, and health care providers are also enthusiastic about how high-speed internet will expand and improve the breadth of services they can offer. Penelakut IslandElementary School principal, Len Merriman, talks about many positive impacts in terms of how educational materials can now be accessed and delivered. In the past, videos, webinars, and applications would stall or freeze so that teachers couldn’t rely on them in the classroom. Now, they can access important and effective tools including a series of inspirational videos developed by the group N’we Jinan in collaboration with Indigenous youth. These videos have a powerful impact on Indigenous youth who are acquiring a strong sense of pride as they discover their roots. First Voices’ online tools and services for the preservation of Indigenous languages and cultures can also be reliably and effectively accessed with the improved connectivity. Likewise, teachers are now able to take full advantage of professional development webinars and training tools. All of these tools and platforms were previously only accessible in theory since they would constantly stall and time-out in practice.
Similar benefits are taking root at the Penelakut Island Learning Centre, a primarily adult education centre that offers its students the opportunity to complete high school on the island. Some classes are taught in-person, but a great deal of the curriculum is delivered via the First Nations Schools Association’s Connected Classrooms program which relies on interactive real-time video conferencing. Again, prior to the arrival of high-speed internet, slow speeds and a poor connection made for a frustrating experience in attempting to participate in videoconferences.
At the health centre, Drug and Alcohol Counsellor Kim Good talks about healing workshops that she offers. There are YouTube clips that she’s looking forward to sharing now that high-speed is enabled. She foresees that these clips will be very effective in educating people about the seven phases of natural healing that are explored in her workshops.
Challenges and Social Impact Risks
The atmosphere at the health centre is warm and welcoming, but it is bursting at the seams with patients awaiting help; staff are wearing multiple hats to ensure that everyone receives the care they need. In talking about this, Kim Good highlighted the challenges the health centre has faced in the process of getting connected. The centre recently relocated and, because of that, there were delays and miscommunications about which building required connectivity.
The community is now very eagerly awaiting the various high-speed Internet-enabled health services that are available through the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA): in particular, telehealth services which rely on videoconferencing to deliver health and wellness services, (such as appointments with specialists), remotely. People are excited about telehealth and hopeful that it will alleviate pressure on the health centre and its staff and ultimately improve lives and health in the community. The Pathways to Technology Team continues to work very closely with the FNHA, Penelakut Administration and TELUS to ensure that the health centre is connected to these health services as soon as possible.
At the Band Office, upgrades are being made to the office’s network router equipment to enable it to take advantage of the much higher network speed. Penelakut’s Information Technology Manager is working closely with TELUS to ensure that the complex office network arrangement is compatible with the high-speed fibre connections of a business-grade network circuit.
For individual homes, progress has been made to reconcile address and billing systems with the actual physical locations in the community. Even though the fibre optic connection to homes is complete, a discrepancy between the physical locations and the information in the billing systems is causing a delay in activating services for some residents. Pathways to Technology and TELUS are dedicated to ensuring that the address database for Penelakut is updated as soon as possible so that all residents can activate services.
The community is also aware of potentially negative social impacts associated with high-speed internet access. Len Merriman is concerned about the highly addictive nature of video gaming, particularly for school-age children. With the arrival of high-speed internet, video gaming becomes even more compelling. This can lead to kids being exhausted and distracted in class or missing school altogether because they’ve stayed up late gaming. There is a real need for effective training, for both parents and kids, on the risks and downsides of high-speed internet along with the benefits. Pathways to Technology partners with educators such as the Nuu-cha-nulth Economic Development Corporation on Vancouver Island to provide recently connected communities with training and education on the use of the internet; this training can include strategies for combatting negative social impacts such as video gaming addiction.
There are many ‘lessons learned’ that the Pathways to Technology team will apply to new projects. In bringing high-speed internet to communities, the team already takes a comprehensive approach to engagement and support. The process starts early with a focus on understanding the specific needs of the community in question. Going forward though, Pathways to Technology will take a more nuanced approach and consider factors such as whether the administrative, health and educational facilities have the internal technology in place that will allow them to take full advantage of the new high-speed internet connection. Likewise, Pathways to Technology will engage with its telecommunication providers to ensure that their systems are capable of connecting residents as soon as the infrastructure is ready for service, and to remain alert to other issues whose resolution may require some lead time.
Pathways to Technology will also continue to facilitate ongoing training within communities, under its Sustainable Technology Services program, by connecting them with educators such as Thomson Rivers University and the Write to Read BC Project. Sustainable Technology Services provides training and consulting services at no cost to newly-connected communities. Their courses cover the fundamentals of computer technology and software programs and can be tailored to community interests. The Write to Read BC Project is a Rotary Club/BC Government partnership that builds libraries and then delivers books, computers, and tablets to remote First Nations communities in BC.
In summary, Pathways to Technology’s approach is evolving to a more holistic model that distinguishes less between the “transport” versus “last mile” aspects of a connectivity solution. For the communities, these distinctions are irrelevant, and the priority must be on understanding each community as a unique, organic system with many unique parts. All parts need to be understood and addressed since a lack of understanding of any one part can render the overall solution ineffective. As the team learns from experience, Pathways to Technology’s approach is constantly evolving and being reshaped to ensure that communities can benefit from high-speed internet access to the fullest extent possible.