Digital solutions through an Indigenous lens | Lawrence Lewis

By Lawrence Lewis ·

Law360 Canada (April 17, 2024, 11:34 AM EDT) --
Lawrence Lewis
In a world where digital transformation shapes every aspect of our lives, the narrative of technological advancement often overlooks the diverse needs and voices of Indigenous communities. But creating digital solutions through an Indigenous lens — combining traditional values through innovative pathways — gives rise to progressive structures that honour cultural significance.

Addressing the digital divide embodies a powerful testament to the resilience and ingenuity of Indigenous peoples and can enable safe, barrier-free access to their rights and entitlements. The essence of blending innovation with tradition cannot be overstated.

Ancestors of Indigenous peoples have navigated the vast landscapes of their territories using the stars; today, we navigate the digital landscape with the same ingenuity and connection to these ancestral roots. And the stark under-representation of Indigenous peoples in technology, a mere 0.7 per cent in British Columbia, is a clear call to action. Technology developed without Indigenous perspectives not only fails to meet their unique needs but often reinforces the colonial structures that continue to marginalize the communities. Venturing into the digital realm is not simply an adaptation but a reclamation of space and sovereignty.

Digitally verifying Indigenous identity is one of the first paramount needs for the community. Why? Studies estimate the rate of unbanked individuals in Indigenous communities to be as high as 15 per cent. How do you participate in the economy if you don’t have access to a bank? Barriers to identity verification at a traditional bank mean folks may require a bank account and credit rating before they can even set up an account.

And particularly for on-reserve folks, travel to or time off work to go the bank is highly disruptive and arduous.

Discrimination against Indigenous peoples is another issue, for example not accepting a government form of ID that relays their cultural background and entitlements. Showing a status card (used by First Nation folks) can be a traumatic experience, often due to institutions not being educated on what a status card is.

Maxwell Johnson’s case, in which he and his teenage granddaughter were arrested when BMO declined their status cards as an accepted form of government ID, highlights the dire need for change that online banking services that digitally verify Indigenous identity can support as well as the enabling of economic participation.

Digital voting provides an enhancement to self-governance. Historically, voting in communities has impeded on the democratic process for Indigenous self-governance due to the challenges of geography, time, money, health and political issues. But with an online option, it removes obstacles. Instead, it gives members the autonomy to participate in their Nation votes — wherever they are in the world — with just a few taps on their smartphone, tablet or computer.

It also increases voter participation due to the ease of use. Paper status card applications have long been a continued source of ongoing frustration, as First Nations applicants face slow response times and an archaic set-up through Indigenous Services Canada. Thus, folks feel pushed aside, dealing with a difficult and lengthy process, sometimes waiting two to five years for access to their entitlements. However, in the process of online status card applications through an Indigenous platform, these bureaucratic challenges and delays do not apply in the same way due to the streamlined foundation and focus on assisting folks from a place of lived experience — simultaneously saving time and providing empathetic support.

Empowering Nation administrators and leaders through digital platforms that serve to manage their members’ information in a secure way, through registrar management whilst updating information easily is a game-changer in reducing the workloads that they are typically inundated with during important times, such as elections.

Simplified administrative processes also strengthen the fabric of the communities, ensuring that every member has a voice and the means to participate fully in the life of their Nation.

Directing an Indigenous community towards expert advice for governance consulting and policy and law-making can positively change the trajectory of an Indigenous community’s self-governance. This extends to altering a land code — meaning that if a land code vote is in favour of a Nation, the government of Canada no longer has a say in how the community’s reserve lands are managed. Land codes have historically been determined by the Indian Act (s. 32) and controlled by the government, so a path away from these colonial structures provides self-determination for communities. It also gives rise to financial sovereignty, such as negotiations with the government for treaty and compensation payouts toward communities to set them up for economic advancement — at the rate they are rightfully entitled to.

Lawrence Lewis (of We Wai Kai Nation) is the founder of OneFeather Mobile Technologies Ltd., whose primary objective is to build digital solutions designed and deployed through an Indigenous lens and our shared lived experience. Lewis was inspired by his grandfather, George Oscar Lewis, who motivated him with the powerful ethos: “If you’re not getting the service you need as an Indigenous person, make it yourself.”    

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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