Engaging more Indigenous peoples in the digital economy will get us farther sooner.

Based on the potential and expertise I encountered at the 2023 Indigenomics Bay Street conference, its annual theme – growing the Indigenous economy in Canada to $100 billion a year – will inevitably be achieved. And based on what I know about Canada’s economy, involving more Indigenous people in digital innovation will get us to that milestone sooner rather than later.

Canada’s digital economy grew roughly 40 percent faster than our overall gross domestic product (GDP) from 2010 to 2019, according to Statistics Canada, and was worth roughly $123 billion in 2020. This was about 5.9 percent of GDP, up from 5.2 percent in 2017, and exceeded the totals of longstanding industries such as mining, forestry, and oil and gas. Given the accelerated digital shift that has taken place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I expect to see an even sharper uptick when up-to-date data is published.

As it stands, however, Indigenous peoples are less engaged in the digital economy than they are in the wider economy. While they account for about 2.5 percent of Canada’s GDP and 5% of our population, they make up only about 1 percent of our digital workforce. 

So how do we engage more Indigenous peoples in the digital economy?

First, we understand and address the barriers. Financial barriers are cited as one of the top obstacles for Indigenous peoples to access in-demand skills training. An intentional program design in providing free wrap-around supports such as IT, mentorship and employment services can not only increase participant enrolment but maintain success throughout to graduation.

For example, the Digital Horizons collaboration led by the B.C. First Nations Technology Council, is training and equipping 422 Indigenous individuals with the skills required to be hired for in-demand jobs or to launch their own businesses in tech and tech-enabled industries. In addition to providing wrap-around supports, their program design incorporates Indigenous culture and life experience through to promoting cultural awareness for employers to attract, hire and retain Indigenous peoples within technology firms.

PLATO, Canada’s largest Indigenous-owned software testing and technology services company, is scaling and enhancing its post-secondary accredited foundational software tester training program to over 75 First Nations, Inuit and Métis trainees across Canada. Their train-and-employ model includes connecting program participants with paid internships with their corporate partners; either encouraging continuation of employment opportunities following their internships or offering them full-time positions within PLATO.

The Digital Marketing Sector Council is working with training partners Jelly Academy and NPower Canada for their Raising Voices program to equip 20 Indigenous job seekers with digital marketing and employability skills as well as industry certifications needed to secure high-growth opportunities. The program’s curriculum seeks to address how disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in the Canada’s digital marketing and technology sectors, which perpetuates ongoing imbalances within storytelling and over-arching voices in these industries. In addition to providing paid internships with Accenture and TD Bank Group, the program consists of digital marketing skills training, professional development, elder support, and job placement support.

Another major barrier to participation in the digital economy for all rural and remote communities is in connectivity. This is about both expanding high-speed Internet access and creating technical expertise within communities to maintain infrastructure and encourage utilization. The Coastal First Nations Connectivity Network, led by Coastal First Nations, focused on training B.C. coastal First Nations community members for tech leadership positions and forged partnerships with Rogers to improve broadband access in their communities. The project’s initial investment enabled significant community digital readiness supports through these connectivity-related programs and infrastructure developments.

In addition to addressing barriers, we need to increase seats at the table through early-stage collaboration and investment in Indigenous-led digital enterprises.

Collaboration is a shared core value to DIGITAL’s model and the principles of economic and Indigenous reconciliation. Our model of collaborative innovation involves ensuring solutions are demand-driven and the customer voice is represented at the development stage. This means an early and active role for Indigenous groups and communities to support the development of these solutions to ensure they meet the needs of Indigenous peoples. 

Indigenous-led initiatives such as IM4 Lab, Canada’s first Indigenous-led virtual production facility in partnership with the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, combines Indigenous storytelling with hands-on writing, directing, cinematography, editing, visual arts, art direction and technical direction curriculum. By providing Indigenized immersive learning and production opportunities for program participants, their programming is increasing in-demand skillsets and diversity of storytelling within the film industry.

Then there’s the Indigenous Digital Health Ecosystem collaboration, led by Mustimuhw Information Solutions, which leverages technologies and expertise of project partners such as the First Nations Health & Social Secretariat of Manitoba, Trinity Western University, Lifelabs and CGI to develop a Nation-based approach to data management and business intelligence. This initiative also allows Indigenous communities to more independently manage services ranging from healthcare and housing to education and emergency response.

Whatever form it takes, DIGITAL’s definition of collaboration is rooted not just in spirit, but in action. This means ensuring that Indigenous individuals, groups and communities are engaged early and often as we work together to harness the power of digital technology to stay ahead of emerging skills gaps and succeed in the ever-changing economy. After all, we can achieve so much more by working together than we can alone.

– DIGITAL CEO, Sue Paish, O.B.C., K.C.