Only high-speed access, he believes, can close the divide by making it enjoyable for people to go on-line. To make that happen, he envisions a private-sector initiative and a large pot of government money. It's a vision shared by the Assembly of First Nations, which is pressing Industry Minister Brian Tobin to feature Internet access for native people in his blueprint for a much-touted national broadband network.
“We missed the Industrial Revolution. We will not miss the Information Technology Revolution.”
AFN national Chief Matthew Coon Come
in a report to the federal government
Until recently, Tobin's project looked like a long shot, but it now appears that today's federal budget will demonstrate the government's support by including at least $100-million in startup money.
The AFN is pitching a "National First Nations Network" it has designed with Telesat Canada to link 633 aboriginal communities so that their band offices, nursing stations and schools can have the same Internet and video-conferencing quality as that enjoyed in Vancouver or Toronto.
Matthew Coon Come, the assembly's national chief, believes that broadband access is essential if native communities are to create many of the 160,000 jobs needed over the next 20 years just to keep pace with population growth. "We missed the Industrial Revolution," he told the government. "We will not miss the Information Technology Revolution."
Donna Cona, meanwhile, has its own $500-million plan. It recently teamed with LinCsat Communications Inc., a Toronto-based firm, to offer high-speed Internet access via satellite to remote communities, and next year hopes to raise $125-million to help first nations obtain the remaining $375-million from Ottawa.
Once the network is in place, everything else will follow, Bernard says confidently, as though he were a Cornelius van Horne of the digital age. He sees his challenge as no less a national dream than building the railway and, like van Horne's bosses, feels the federal money is vital. The hundreds of communities in need of digital connections are too small and too remote to justify a purely private venture. "There's just not a return on investment in connecting Old Crow, Yukon," he says. "That's the sad truth."
But raising money is just one barrier. "Elders are becoming a bit of an impediment," Bernard tells his audience. They fear that new technologies will lead to assimilation, and may even oppose allowing them on their reserves. "They're actually suggesting a digital divide would be a good thing. They're saying, `It allows us to protect our culture.' "
He, of course, disagrees. Growing up on an impoverished reserve near Edmunston, N.B., has shown him what isolation will do to a people. He has been to remote settlements and found perfectly good computers still sitting in their boxes simply because band staff had no idea how to use them - in one case, they did not know the difference between Microsoft Word and the Internet. Small wonder that a native health-care official once asked him what a computer could do to end the rash of suicides in her community.
His partners, Sandy Foote and Barry Dowdall, grew up in suburban comfort, but the more they have seen of aboriginal Canada, the more they have come to share his views. (Granted, it may have taken them a while to see why business meetings should begin with an aboriginal prayer and why hiring a shaman is no different than hiring an inspirational speaker.)
Now, after nearly a decade in business together, the three feel that their worlds must converge to help to end the marginalization of so many native communities. They have concluded that, rather than destroy aboriginal culture, technology is needed to preserve it in a rapidly changing world.
Foote concedes that "technology is an assimilating force . . . creating a global culture - anywhere in the world you can watch the same TV programs." But that doesn't mean throwing in the towel.
"You can be afraid of it," he explains, "or you can use it to your own advantage. By fearing something, by keeping it at the door, you won't succeed. Technology is changing the world. We can't stop it, but we can adjust it."