KEEWAYTINOOK OKIMAKANAK COMMUNITIES, NORTHWESTERN ONTARIO, CANADA AND ICT:
THE KUH KE NAH NETWORK OF SMART FIRST NATIONS

 

Introduction

The six aboriginal communities of Keewaytinook Okimakanak (Northern Chiefs Council in Oji-Cree language) are located in Northwestern Ontario. They comprise a total population of 2800 people, which are part of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation with 20 000 inhabitants spread over a territory of 300 000 square kilometers (0,1 persons per sq. km). Deer Lake is the largest community with a population of 850 and the smallest, North Spirit Lake, has 314 inhabitants. These vast territories of lakes and forests with few roads, experiencing severe winter conditions, are more remote than rural. These small communities have long been struggling against physical isolation. Hospital and high school access require air travel, with the exception of a 10 week period when four wheel drive vehicles can travel along a winter road. The economy is mainly based on forestry, mining, fishing and a little tourism. Thirty six per cent of the adult population is unemployed or are receiving some form of social assistance and high school completion rates are low. Fifty per cent of the population is less than 19 years old and only 4% is 60 years or older.

In such a context, telecommunications infrastructure plays a vital role in maintaining contact with the outside world. Use of information technologies in these First Nations to counter remoteness is a practice that has been developed in the recent years with the active support of K-Net, a public organization set up in 1995 to facilitate network and service implementation in the area. K-Net has worked with telecommunications operators and communities to ensure that radio and satellite links connect communities to the telephone network and the Internet. For some communities it has meant that they have just received residential telephone services in the year 2000! For others, it translates as access to local cable and rapid uptake of web-based communications tools. More than 800 people in Keewaytinook communities regularly use their E-mail account. This situation is quite unique since many Internet users have never had a telephone! However, it mirrors ICT diffusion in lesser-developed countries where technological leap-frogging is common. K-Netís expertise in animating and supporting ICT use and development and the success of the Community Access Program are the building blocks of an ambitious Smart Community project.

 

1/ Previous ICT projects:

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, as other aboriginal communities in Canada, have historically had extremely limited access to educational services. They have utilized extension programs and employed training models that traditionally required that learners leave their community. Distant education services that employ videoconferencing and the Internet and permit flexible access are mostly unavailable in remote First Nations communities. The one notable exception is a radio high school that was launched by a consortium of Aboriginal educational and communications organizations. In the middle of the last decade K-Net introduced Bulletin Board Services (BBS), permitting toll-free electronic posting and retrieval of information as well as the on-line organization of forums between members of a closed community of users. The BBS platform anticipated user and technical standards that would later be entrenched with the diffusion of the World Wide Web and Internet Protocol.

Educational applications were some of the possibilities opened by these on-line services and the communities of Keewaytinook Okimakanak seized the opportunity. The K-Net BBS started operations in 1994 as a "stay in school project" connecting students and teachers. The system permitted easier monitoring of studentís progress by teachers and introduced computer literacy amongst youngsters while giving parents a way of keeping in touch with their children attending school away from home. In 1995 the service was extended to the whole region, with phone and on-line support delivered to more than sixty First Nation schools across Northern Ontario. In 1997 K-Net moved to a web-based platform that added the graphical dimension to existing services.

The following step came with the installation of six community access program sites, one in each community, in 1997. This major initiative to secure the required telecommunications infrastructure as well as necessary funding from federal agencies was the result of efforts by the Northern Chiefs Council. The CAP program finances only the computer equipment and software, for an amount varying from 30 000 to 40 000 C$. Each center is staffed by one person, responsible for technical maintenance of equipment and delivering computer literacy courses to local people. The sites are linked together in a network administered by the K-Net staff in Sioux Lookout.

K-Net has been pivotal in all of the ICT projects launched in the different communities of the Nishnawbe Aski First Nations since remoteness puts a strong emphasis not only on adequate telecommunications infrastructure but also on technical servicing expertise and provision of rapid response to network maintenance and community repair issues. For that purpose, K-Net and its seven staff has a strong technical and help desk component available around the clock. One member is entirely dedicated to educational applications and another is responsible for the design and maintenance of the very comprehensive Website (www.knet.on.ca). K-Net also supports the technical training of community access center personnel residing in each community as well as bringing them advice when required.

2/ The Kuh Ke Nah smart community:

The Smart Community Program (smartcommunities.ic.gc.ca) is a federal initiative designed to encourage dissemination of ICT and identification of best practices. Just like the Community Access Program, it obeys to a competitive process that was launched in 1999, whereby communities must comply with a certain number of conditions to submit a project. The main feature is integration of broadband services in the project, which must apply to several sectors simultaneously and not be limited to a single set of applications. Community involvement and support of the population as well as previous experience are also elements taken into consideration by the selection committee. On this basis 129 communities submitted letters of intent and 46 were than pre-selected to present comprehensive business plans detailing the strategic, operational and financial aspects of the proposed projects. At the end of this process, 12 projects were selected nation-wide (one per province, one aboriginal, one for the northern territories) in May 2000. Winning communities receive from Industry Canada a sum of up to 5 million C$ over three years to be matched by equivalent local funds. Kuh Ke Nah, which means "everyone together" in Oji-Cree, was one of the 12 selected projects (smart.knet.on.ca). It comprises five main components: distant education, tele-health, a Web portal, extension of community access centers, adapted database and Internet access solutions for small user groups.

The Internet high school project uses a Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) platform that combines on-line teaching through the Internet with local supervision. This permits pooling of teaching resources amongst different locations. Courses are conducted both in the classroom and on-line, with help for the latter given by the pupilís own teacher, whose role is not limited to the sequences of on-line class, but also permits follow-up of homework assigned on-line through E-mail. The project has opened new perspectives in allowing high school students to attend school without leaving the area. Before that the only costly choice was to attend the Sioux Lookout High School located several hundred kilometers away. Separation from families is considered to be one of the main factors explaining learner under-performance and a high dropout rate.

The Internet high school project was pilot tested in 1999. Thirty-five grade eight students in five communities participated in a newly developed Native Studies curriculum. This pilot helped to identify potential problems and find proper solutions before the main project started. Teachers had to adapt to a new environment where pupilís progress had to be monitored with a distant colleague. Students had to acquire extra skills on the computer through specific training in order to draw all the benefit of on-line courses. Amongst the recommendations made at the end of the pilot were necessary access to school computers for students in the evening for practice and "homework", with supervision by parents, thus associating them to the process. On the basis of this previous experience, the Internet High School was launched in September 2000, with 25 students attending. Fifty per cent are under 16 years of age.

In the field of telehealth an information and education program was carried out mid 2000 with the goal of identifying priorities and guidelines. Local community health staff and Kuh Ke Nah project personnel jointly conducted field meetings and interviews for that purpose. Meetings with Health Committees, Band Councils, and the general public provided a forum for introducing the telehealth concept and gauging opinion. Follow-up home visits offered residents the possibility to ask specific questions and project staff to record personal concerns. The overall reaction to telehealth access was positive. Local political and administrative bodies showed cautious enthusiasm for the project, potential users expressed interest and highlighted concerns such as privacy. Health personnel welcomed the introduction of the new service. The support of these workers was of course crucial. They felt that it would improve patient care, reduce their experience of professional isolation, and increase access to health education and training. They also saw immediate benefits such as improved patient care and consultation, better coordination of medication orders and faster turnaround on laboratory results.

Access to mental health services was identified as a telemedical priority. The dearth of qualified personnel in the region makes delivery of such a service very difficult. This need has been the focus of a pilot study since 1999. In the pilot, patients attend a videoconference facility in Red Lake. A psychiatrist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba joins the videoconference and conducts the session. Patients are assisted by a native language technician and, if necessary, an interpreter. In the near future, once all the five major settlements are connected other telehealth services such as orthopedics, pediatrics, and dermatology will be implemented. Other uses include transfer of ultrasound images to the regional zone hospital and virtual teleconference visits between patients and their relatives.

The five community access centers are a strategic component of the smart community project. To fully support all its applications, these centers need to receive new equipment and have their role reinforced. They will thus become hubs for smart services access and training in each community. The local co-ordinator in each center, renamed "e-Centers" will assume several different responsibilities. Besides running the center, each will provide access to IP videoconferencing and ensure different levels of training in computer technology and applications. The e-Centers will play an important role in community affairs and in local government, since they will allow IP videoconferencing to replace monthly regional meetings.

The Kuh Ke Nah portal is a fully virtual community and meeting point presenting, explaining and indicating progress on the components of the smart community. It will also facilitate access to public information and services. Most of all it is conceived as a site reflecting local values and traditions, giving ample space to Aboriginal culture and ways of life. In particular, the Website will permit transmission of age-old legends in both English and Oji-Cree language. It will also constitute an entry point for visitors and support the development of tourism.

The fifth component of the project concerns specific software development based on the idea of replicability in other similar contexts, whether for very remote areas in developed Nations or in lesser-developed Nations. A data warehouse will facilitate the development and agreement on data policies, procedures, standards and definitions with a view to mobilize efficiently content supplied by the different communities. A caching/router project will aim to optimize network resources for recurring frequent usage of Internet pages by schools and e-Centers. Low bandwidth connections require local storage of most consulted pages to increase delivery speed.