THE WIRED WARRIOR'S DIGITAL DREAM
John Bernard sees cyberspace as the promised land for his
troubled people. After all, computers have made him a millionaire
and national role model. But will the Internet really help far-flung
native communities band together, as he imagines, or will it, as his
critics fear, suck aboriginal Canada into the global cultural vortex?
By JOHN STACKHOUSE
Monday, December 10, 2001 Print Edition, Page A8
The Internet Indians are gathered in small circles, around tables of pasta and wine, when the Preacher takes the stage, 45 minutes behind schedule and, to hear his words, not a minute too soon.
"This is the time!" the Preacher of connectivity impresses upon his audience. This is the time for them "to leapfrog the Canadian economy into the global economy." For remote communities to connect with the rest of the world.
For isolated, depressed youths to hook up with a vast universe. For struggling native bands to access every health and education tool that the white world has cheated them of.
Bernard should know. The son of a Mi'kmaq ironworker and his Italian-American bride, he rose from a small reserve in New Brunswick to become an Internet millionaire, national role model and self-styled prophet of the digital age.
He did it, he tells the hushed audience, by keeping his feet in two worlds -- by selling his native market to non-native money, and by selling non-native ideas to his native people.
The former federal civil servant believes this is the only way natives like those in his audience will get ahead and their communities will escape their troubles. Across the country, he says, reserves need communications technology not only to hook up with each other but with the rest of the world. And there's money to be made from it, he adds, at least for savvy aboriginal entrepreneurs with agile minds and political smarts.
As Bernard settles into his after-dinner speech to the group of aboriginal high-tech executives, he tells the story of Donna Cona Inc., the Ottawa-based computer systems company he founded with two non-native partners. Commercially, it has been a success. Culturally, it is helping to transform many reserves.
But Bernard knows that his methods are not celebrated across the board. The big companies that provide Internet and telecommunications services to most of Canada have only a passing interest in the small and remote aboriginal communities he hopes to wire. The federal government, which he says will have to subsidize much of his work if it is to succeed, has its own worries about the risky new world of connectivity.
And then there's his own kind, both in race and profession. Bernard knows that some native people see him as some kind of 21st-century fur trader, a half-breed they say is turning his own land into a digital colony for corporate Canada. He also knows that to some high-tech people he is a modern snake-oil salesman, a half-breed they say will take good government money and run.
For his part, he has learned to live with such prejudices, as he pushes to get to the forefront of a quiet but revolutionary native struggle. His challenge is to use technology to put an end to the North's often debilitating isolation.
But he knows that he has to do so without crushing an entire culture in places such as Bella Coola, the community on British Columbia's sparsely populated central coast where he came face to face with the digital divide. Visiting a school, he asked an assembly of 100 native students how many had heard of the Internet. About half of them put up a hand. How many enjoyed it? This time, he counted only three. "The phone lines are too slow," he complains.
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.
Until recently, Tobin's project looked like a long shot, but it now appears that today's federal budget will include 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 natives 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."
Since he, Foote and Dowdall started off in the early 1990s, the company has shown in some small ways what technology can do for remote native communities. Their initial venture, a company called Systems Interface, was a commercial success in selling computer services largely to government departments.
But what made their mark was the 1996 launch of Donna Cona, specifically dedicated to aboriginal work -- designing systems for native bands, training native workers in systems management and, in 1999, wiring the new territory of Nunavut, which covers one-fifth of Canada's land mass. Today, half of Donna Cona's 50 employees are native, mostly in skilled jobs with salaries that start at $60,000 a year.
The company takes its name from the 16th-century Iroquois chief who was one of the first to try to bring native and non-native together. In 1534, Donnacona greeted Jacques Cartier and tried to make the French explorer feel welcome in "Kanata," only to be spirited against his will back to France, never to return.
The modern Donna Cona has fared better, especially for Bernard. He earned $2-million in 1999 when Sierra Systems Group Inc. of Vancouver bought into the company. He stayed on as president and majority shareholder, last year booking business worth $5.3-million, a figure he hopes to double this year.
But it hasn't all been smooth sailing. Bernard says federal projects are wrapped in a degree of red tape he suspects non-native firms rarely see. One contract worth $2-million was put on hold for seven months, even though Donna Cona had already hired three full-time techies for it.
Even worse, he says, the factors that helped to get the company on its feet now may be holding it back, perhaps even threatening the very idea of affirmative action for aboriginal people.
As a certified aboriginal business, Donna Cona can bid on a range of exclusive contracts, known as "set asides," and much of its success thus far comes from selling basic computer operating services to native programs within the government. But to maintain this status, it must ensure that, no matter how big it grows, one-third of the payroll remains aboriginal. As well, it has to keep at least 51 per cent of its ownership in native hands -- again, no matter how much capital it needs.
Bernard says he has a hard enough time finding natives interested in working with computers; it's just about impossible, he says, to find venture capitalists willing to bet on a native company, especially one that essentially can't be bought out by a non-native competitor. "How do I, as an aboriginal firm, continue to grow without becoming non-aboriginal?" he asks.
The snub hurt Bernard's father deeply. So did his employer's decision to fire him from a foreman's job because company policy suddenly required that he have a high-school diploma. "He said his children would never face the humility he did," Bernard remembers of his father, who rarely spoke of their native ancestry after that.
In 1971, the family returned to the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation -- their tiny reserve of 250 outside Edmunston, a mill town in northwestern New Brunswick. Bernard was 10, and his mother Margaret was determined to rekindle his heritage. She started a native crafts shop and later ran for the band chief's job, which through marriage she had the right to seek. And she won.
One of her first acts was to sue the Department of Indian Affairs over a land lease. But she forgot one of the basic rules of politics: take care of your supporters. Failing to allocate new housing to those who voted for her, Bernard says, she failed to win a second term.
The incessant demands for patronage turned the young Bernard off reserve life for good. "The indifference to getting ahead bothered me. There was so much welfare. It was a way of life. I always knew I'd have to leave if I was to get anywhere."
However, finding a place in the other society wasn't easy. Growing up, he was taunted at school by the Edmunston kids, who often greeted the reserve bus with mock warpath sounds. One teacher, upon seeing a rip in his textbook, called him "nothing but a savage."
Despite such prejudice, one of his sisters finished law school. Another completed university and went on to a senior position in the federal government.
When he arrived at the University of New Brunswick, Bernard also expected to study law -- the accepted native avenue to a respectable job. Then, for a second-year calculus course, he bought a Tandy programmable calculator. "Man, oh man, did I get hooked," he says. His math grade went from C+ to A, and he was soon spending most of his time in the computer centre -- "down there at midnight with all the Chinese," he says, laughing at his own ethnic stereotype.
Having left the reserve and Edmunston behind, he did not realize at first how much discrimination he had been spared by having his mother's skin colour and his father's anglo name. With no reserve school bus, no one knew his roots, or seemed to care. In the dining hall, he usually sat with non-native students, and had little problem finding an apartment to rent.
Meanwhile, darker-skinned native classmates were routinely turned away by landlords and kept to themselves in the dining hall. Once, when Bernard tried to join them, "they all stared at me, and one said I didn't have the right to sit there because I didn't face the same bias they did."
After university, he went on to a comfortable and secure government job, in computers with Health Canada and then Indian Affairs. He also married a woman of Ukrainian-Canadian descent, and for a time began to wonder if he was indeed native.
That was before his government job took him to some of the country's remotest reserves, where, for the first time, he witnessed the deep poverty and despair of Canada's natives. He still remembers asking in one health centre why there was a bag of empty nail-polish bottles. "In my naiveté, I asked, 'Why are these kids doing this? Why don't they have jobs?' "
Later, whenever he encountered such scenes, he thought of his own three children -- as Mi'kmaq as he and yet consumed by computer games and Pokémon -- and he wondered if their new technological world could provide a bridge.
He was also becoming intrigued by another facet of mainstream life, in the legions of consultants and corporate salesmen parading through his government office making small fortunes from new technologies. It was enough to make him quit his public-service job to launch his own aboriginal technology company.
But soon he met Foote, who had a better idea. The Ottawa entrepreneur offered Bernard a job in the most uncertain, unregimented and egalitarian environment a modern Mi'kmaq could imagine.
While in his 20s, he had started his Systems Interface and then teamed with Dowdall, an engineering and MBA graduate from Queen's University. In the late 1980s, while working on a project at Indian Affairs, they realized how much high-tech business would be emerging in native communities that hoped to leap into the 21st century. After hiring Bernard, their aboriginal division accumulated $400,000 in business in one year, and enough confidence to launch Donna Cona as a subsidiary to go after more.
But none of the partners imagined just how different the culture of aboriginal business had become. Despite his years in government, Bernard did not realize how many native firms were only fronts for mainstream companies, or how they often got contracts simply by writing to the right official. Once their names were in the database, they expected more contracts, and would complain when they didn't get them. "These guys have gotten to the point where they expect business to come to them," he says. "Many believe it's payback time."
Donna Cona, of course, received favours -- wage subsidies, training funds and tax breaks -- thanks to its aboriginal status, and Bernard, as a status Indian, pays no tax on income he earns for work he does on reserves, even though he has not lived on one for 20 years.
As they tried to expand their aboriginal work force, the three partners soon discovered other cultural hurdles. Some of their new workers were habitually late, or easily distracted at work. Most seemed reluctant to speak their minds, which became a challenge in a computer environment where problems need to be voiced loud and fast.
Dowdall, the finance guy, slowly began to see some of the reticence as part of a greater native fear of assimilation by the white world. Foote, the computer geek, felt that some of the awkwardness was common to techies, native or not. But Bernard, the salesman, came to see the challenge as an opportunity. Perhaps what made natives so frustrating to many companies also made them ideally suited for the new economy.
"If you look to a lot of aboriginals, they won't look you in the eye," he says. "They have a problem with confrontation. Yet they're creative, they're artistic, they're visual. Those things I just said, they're all suited to the Internet. I think it's a fantastic opportunity."
It was also a good opportunity for Donna Cona, which got into the training business, supplying young people both with computer skills and with such employment basics as interview techniques and personal communications.
But by the late 1990s, with the North American tech frenzy in full swing, parent company Systems Interface felt that, to keep pace with the competition, it should be doing triple its annual $6.5-million in business. The partners would have to buy a competitor, merge or sell out. They agreed to sell.
They had no trouble finding a buyer, but Sierra, a $130-million- a-year company, did not understand why it needed a separate aboriginal division to go after native work. Foote suddenly found himself defending Canada's aboriginal affirmative-action programs to the board of directors.
"The president said to me, 'We have aboriginals working at Sierra, we have Chinese working at Sierra, we have people from Eastern Europe working at Sierra. Why would we have a separate company when we have our own affirmative environment? Tell me why that makes sense.' "
For one, the company could not buy a controlling interest in Donna Cona without losing the preferential government treatment. In the end, Foote thinks the board agreed to take all of Systems Interface but only 49 per cent of Donna Cona as an act of charity, in effect "giving something back to the natives" by leaving the rest with Bernard.
As well, he gave $30,000 to Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., to create a computer-science scholarship for aboriginal students, and invested $400,000 in ePay4ItOnline.com -- designed to help small companies collect bills on line. Sure enough, the site was caught in the great dot-com collapse, but Bernard, ever the optimist, believes it will soon be back in business.
He also feels that Donna Cona can double its business every year, even as it attracts more attention within a community not always known for celebrating its own accomplishments. "I'm not proud of this," he says, "but we're our own worst enemy. There's so much jealousy once you're successful." He's talking about natives, not techies.
Last year, however, he received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award, given annually by an influential group keen to promote native role models. The black-tie ceremony could have been the highlight of a career. But what Bernard remembers most vividly was the event's sponsorship board, and how all the big-letter names -- Air Canada, CIBC, Placer Dome -- were such emblems of white corporate power. Now he won't be satisfied until Donna Cona is among them.
Bernard knows that the high-tech world -- so often seen as colour-blind -- is more complex than the achievement awards might suggest. His own livelihood is intertwined with the technology, management skills and capital he accessed from the white world. He doubts that his company could have survived the federal foot-dragging on contracts without Sierra Systems' deeper pockets.
He also would not have been able to create 25 high-paying, high-tech jobs for natives if he had not been able to tap into Foote's vision or Dowdall's bottom-line discipline. Those were useful assets for Donna Cona in a recent deal that gives it exclusive rights to market Nortel Networks equipment to aboriginal communities.
The marriage of cultures, Bernard believes, is what improves the lives of people. But he is all too aware of the risks. They are perhaps not as grave as those fated for the fabled Iroquois chief, but they are serious nonetheless. He could yet be seen as the very aboriginal front man he so often criticizes. He could also end up selling advanced technology to people who have much more basic needs.
But he also may be emerging as the sort of entrepreneur -- still scarce so many centuries after Donnacona's demise -- who can bridge two cultures, and profit from both. Whatever the extent of Ottawa's commitment to a native broadband project, the effort will struggle to succeed if it does not tap the private-sector gumption, and risk-taking, of natives like Bernard. It will also need skills, technology and capital from the world that Foote and Dowdall represent.
In his years of selling the digital dream, Bernard has seen enough communities deprived of the newest technologies to understand that bridging Canada's native and non-native worlds will require the best of both of them.
He also has come to understand how difficult that will be. He has seen big companies that claim to serve Canada look right over vast stretches of the country dominated by aboriginal people. And he has seen government policy designed without much thought to the needs of remote communities.
But in climbing the ladder of high-tech success, Bernard has come to believe that one of the great challenges to closing the digital divide rests in his own community.
He shakes his head when he thinks of his siblings on the reserve. If he were to complain to them about the ruthless corporate world, or remind them that the trip to Cancun this spring was his first vacation in years, he knows that his sister would shake her head too. "She's happy," he says. "I go down there and she's on top of the world. And here I am, winning all these awards and all stressed out."
For all the challenges of wiring the North -- raising the money, finding the technology, winning the support of native and non-native leaders -- Bernard sometimes wonders if the resistance to change on so many reserves will, in the end, keep the digital divide in place.
Unless native communities are willing to take more risks -- and the government is willing to back them -- he fears that the world of his childhood will never catch up with the one his children are inheriting.