By Kyle Mullin - January 22nd, 2009
Susan O'Donnell, a senior research officer at the National Research Council, says that video conferencing can help bridge the gap between urban centers and isolated First Nations communities. That's why she is working with leaders of those communities in a project called VideoCom (http://videocom.knet.ca), to examine the need for and effectiveness of videoconferencing for their residents.
"As Canadians, we often like to think our standard of living is so high," she said. "But there's a lot of First Nations communities across the country where the residents just don't have that quality of life."
"The folks living and working in remote and rural communities are challenged in every way to provide equitable and accessible services that the folks in urban centers take for granted," said Brian Beaton, the coordinator of K-Net, a team that facilitates the development of broadband internet applications for rural First Nations communities across Canada.
He added videoconferencing could address the biggest challenge these small communities face - ignorance and indifference from urban environments about the poverty and isolation they endure.
In January, O'Donnell travelled to work with Beaton in remote northern Ontario Oji-Cree villages like Keewaywin and Muskrat Dam. During her stay, she saw communities crippled by a lack of infrastructure and services, residents that had to travel hours to see a doctor and children forced to uproot and leave their homes to find education past primary school.
"I'm not going to say technology will solve all these problems," she said. "But what we can do with video conferencing is offer a tool for these remote communities to easily communicate in a way that wasn't possible before."
She said this tool can connect students to teachers, so they won't have to leave their families and communities at such a young age for an education in an urban area.
O'Donnell added that video conferencing can help these communities establish business opportunities in areas like mineral exploration that weren't possible before because of high travel costs.
"It's not just about giving them easier access to urban centers," she added. "We have every bit as much to learn from them - the smaller the town, the better the understanding of how to make communities work, because resources are so scarce that understanding becomes necessary for their survival."
"There's so much wisdom in these communities," said Kevin Burton, director of regional management for Atlantic Canada's First Nations Help Desk. "A standard DSL connection may be good for downloading, but the broadband used for videoconferencing makes uploading just as smooth and instant communication becomes easier. That way they can share and not just receive information."
O'Donnell is working to determine how broadband video communication can best be established and used for the benefit of these communities. She said towns need tools like these, and control over the resources at their disposal, so that they'll have their own means to prosper.
"More than anything, I hope this provides evidence to policy makers - let's just build the infrastructure and let them decide how best to use it," she said. "Because they know what problems are priority and how to solve them. All they need is the means to do so."
"The people who live and work in remote communities have always known what works best for themselves," Beaton said.
"By researching the effective use of these tools, VideoCom is giving them a level playing field. These tools are a means for sharing and growing as a nation. It can help us all begin listening, learning and growing together instead of sustaining selfish and self-centred attitudes towards each other."